Copyright
John Morley.

Critical miscellanies online

. (page 7 of 29)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 7 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


tion show the solace which perseverance in taking thought for
mankind brought to him in the depths of personal calamity.
He had concluded his survey of the past history of the race,
and had drawn what seemed in his eyes a moderate and reason-
able picture of its future. ' How this picture,' he exclaims,
with the knell of his own doom sounding full in the ear while
he wrote, 'this picture of the human race freed from all its
fetters, withdrawn from the empire of chance, as from that of
the enemies of progress, and walking with firm and assured
step in the way of truth, of virtue, and happiness, presents to
the philosopher a sight that consoles him for the errors, the
crimes, the injustice, with which the earth is yet stained, and
of which he is not seldom the victim ! It is in the contempla-
tion of this picture that he receives the reward of his efibrts
for the progress of reason, for the defence of liberty. He
ventures to link them with the eternal chain of the destinies of
man : it is there he finds the true recompense of virtue, the
pleasure of having done a lasting good, that fate can no longer
undo by any disastrous compensation that shall restore prejudice
and bondage. This contemplation is for him a refuge, into
(1) Dupont de Nemoiirs. Les Fhysiocrates, i. 326.



CONDORCET. 77

which the recollection of his persecutors can never follow him ;
in which, living in thought with man reinstated in the rights
and the dignity of his nature, he forgets man tormented and
corrupted by greed, by base fear, by envy ; it is here that he
truly abides with his fellows, in an elysium that his reason has
known how to create for itself, and that his love for humanity
adorns with all purest delights.' ^

It has long been the fashion among the followers of that
reaction which Coleridge led and Mr. Carlyle has spread and
popularised, to dwell exclusively on the coldness and hardness,
the excess of scepticism and the defect of enthusiasm, that are
supposed to have characterised the eighteenth century. Because
the official religion of the century both in England and France
was lifeless and mechanical, it has been taken for granted that
the level of thought and feeling was a low one universally ; as
if the highest moods of every era necessarily clothed themselves
in religious forms. The truth is that, working in such natures
as Condorcet's, the principles of the eighteenth century, its
homage to reason and rational methods, its exaltation to the
highest place of the happiness of men, not excluding their
material well-being, its passion for justice and law, its large
illumination, engendered a fervour as truly spiritual as that of
Catholicism or of Calvinism at their best, while its sentiment
was infinitely less interested and personal. The passage just
quoted is as little mechanical, as little material, as the most
rapturous ejaculations of the Christian saints and confessors ;
and, read in connection with the circumstances of its composi-
tion, may show that the eighteenth century was able at any
rate to inspire its sons with a faith that could rob death of
its sting and the grave of its victory, as effectually as if it had
rested on a mystery instead of on reason, and been supported
(1) Progres de V Esprit Humain, GEuvres, vi. 276.



78 CONDORCET.

by the sanctions of eternal pain and eternal bliss, instead of
moving from a confident devotion to humanity.

V.

The shape of Condorcet's ideas upon history arose from the
twofold necessity which the structure of his character imposed
uj)on him, at once of appeasing his aspirations on behalf of
mankind, and of satisfying a disciplined and scientific intelli-
gence. He was of too robust an understanding to find
adequate gratification in the artificial construction of hypo-
thetical Utopias. Conviction was as indispensable as hope ;
and distinct grounds for the faith that was in him, as essential
as the faith itself. The result of this fact of mental constitu-
tion, the intellectual conditions of the time being what they
were, was the rise in his mind of the great and central concep-
tion of there being a law in the succession of social states, to
be ascertained by an examination of the collective phenomena
of past history. The merit of this admirable efibrt, and of the
work in which it found expression, is very easily underrated,
because the efibrt was insufficient and merely preparatory, while
modern thought has already carried us far beyond it, and at
least into sight of the complete truths to which this efibrt only
pointed the way. Let us remember, however, that it pointed
the way distinctly and unmistakably. A very brief survey of
the state of history as a subject of systematic study enables us
to appreciate with precision what service it was that Condorcet
rendered ; for it carries us back from the present comparatively
advanced condition of the science of society to a time before his
memorable attempt, when conceptions now become so familiar
were not in existence, and when even the most instructed
students of human afiairs no more felt the need of a scientific
theory of the manner in which social efiects foUow social



CONDORCET. ^ 79

causes, tlian the least instructed portion of tlie literary public
feels such a need in our owai time. It is difficult after a subject
has been separated from the nebulous mass of unclassified know-
ledge, has taken independent shape, and begun to move in
lines of its own, to realise the process by which all this was
effected, or the way in which before all this the facts concerned
presented themselves to the thinker's mind. That we should
overcome the difficulty is one of the conditions of our being
able to do justice to the great army of the precursors.

Two movements of thought went on in France during the
middle of the eighteenth century which have been compara-
tively little dwelt upon by historians, whose main anxiety has
been to justify the foregone conclusion, so gratifying alike to
the partisans of the social reaction and to the disciples of
modern transcendentalism in its many disguises, that the
eighteenth century was almost exclusively negative, critical,
and destructive. Each of these two currents was positive in
the highest degree, and their influence undeniably constructive,
if we consider that it was from their union into a common
channel, a work fully accomplished first in the mind of Con-
dorcet, that the notion of the scientific treatment of history
and society took its earliest start.

The first of the two movements, and that which has been
most unaccountably neglected, consisted in the remarkable
attempts of Quesnay and his immediate followers to withdraw
the organisation of society from the sphere of empiricism, and
to substitute for the vulgar conception of arbitrary and artificial
institutions as the sole foundation of this organisation, the idea
that there is a certain Natural Order, conformity to which in
all social arrangements is the essential condition of their being
advantageous to the members of the social union. Natural
Order in the minds of this school was no metaphysical figment



80 CONDORCET.

evolved from pure consciousness, but a set of circumstances to
be discovered by continuous and methodical observation. It
consisted of physical law and moral law. The first was the
regulated course of every physical circumstance in the order
evidently most advantageous to the human race. The second
was the rule of every human action of the moral order, con-
formed to the physical order evidently most advantageous to
the human race. This order is the base of the most perfect
government, and the fundamental rule of all positive laws ; for
positive laws are only the laws required to keep up and main-
tain the natural order that is evidently most advantageous to
the race.^

Towards the close of the reign of Louis xiv. the frightful
impoverishment of the realm attracted the attention of one or
two enlightened observers, and among them of Boisguillebert
and Yauban. They had exposed, the former of them with
especial force and amplitude, the absurdity of the general
system of administration, which seemed to have been devised
for the express purpose of paralysing both agriculture and
commerce, and exhausting all the sources of the national
wealth.^ But these speculations had been mainly of a fiscal
kind, and pointed not much further than to a readjustment of
taxation and an improvement in the modes of its collection.
The disciples of the New Science, as it was called, the Physio-
crats or believers in the supremacy of Natural Order, went
much beyond this, and in theory sought to lay open the whole
ground of the fabric of society. Practically, they dealt with
scarcely any but the economic circumstances of societies, though
some of them mix up with their reasonings upon commerce

(1) Quesnay ; Droit Naturel, c. 5. Les Physiocrates, i. 52.

(2) Economistes Financiers du l^ieme Steele. Vauban's Projet d'une Dime
Royale (p. 33), and Boisguillebert's Factum de la France, &c. (p. 248 et seqq.).



CONDORCET. 81

and agriculture crude and incomplete hints upon forms of
government and other questions that belong not to the econo-
mical but to the political side of social science.^ Quesnay's
famous Maxims open with a declaration in favour of the unity
of the sovereign authority, and against the system of counter-
balancing forces in government. Almost immediately he passes
on to the proper ground of political economy, and elaborates
the conditions of material prosperity in an agricultural realm.
With the correctness of the definitions and principles of
economic science as laid down by these writers, we have here
nothing to do. Their peculiar distinction in the present con-
nection is the grasp which they had of the princijjle of there
being a natural and therefore a scientific order in the con-
ditions of a society ; that order being natural in the sense they
attached to the term, which from the circumstances of the case
is most beneficial to the race. From this point of view they
approach some of the problems of what is now classified as
social statics ; and they assume, without any consciousness of
another aspect being possible, that the society which they are
discussing is in a state of equilibrium.

It is evident that with this restriction of the speculative
horizon, they were and must remain wholly unable to emerge
into the full light of the completely constituted science of
society, with laws of movement as well as laws of equilibrium,
with definite methods of interpreting past and predicting future
states. They could account for and describe the genesis of the
social union, as Plato and Aristotle had in different ways been
able to do many centuries before ; and they could prescribe some
of the conditions of its being maintained in vigour and compact-

(1) De la Eiviere, for instance, very notably. Cf. his Ordre Naturel dcs
Societes Politiques. Physiocrates, ii. 469, 636, ice. See also Baudeau on the
superiority of the Economic Monarchy. Ibid. pp. 783 — 791.

G



82 CONDORCET.

ness. Some of tliem could even see in a vague way tlie inter-
dependence of peoples and the community of tlie real interests
of diflferent nations, each nation, as De la Riviere expressed it,
being only a province of the vast kingdom of nature, a branch
from the same trunk as the rest.^ "What they could not see
was the great fact of social evolution ; and here too, in the
succession of social states, there has been a natural and observ-
able order. In a word, they tried to understand society without
the aid of history. Consequently they laid down the truths
which they discovered as absolute and fixed, when they were
no more than conditional and relative.

Fortunately inquirers in another field had set a movement
afoot, which was destined to furnish the supplement of their own
speculation. This was the remarkable development of the con-
ception of history, which Montesquieu's two memorable books
first made conspicuous. Bossuet's well-known discourse on
universal history, teeming as it does with religious prejudice,
just as Condorcet's sketch teems with prejudice against religion,
and egregiously imperfect in execution as it must be pronounced,
when judged from even the meanest historical standard, had
perhaps partially introdviced ' the spirit of universality,' as
Comte says, into the study of history. But it was impossible
from the nature of the case for any theologian to know fully
what this spirit means ; and it was not until the very middle
of the following century that any efiective approach was made
to that universality which Bossuet did little more than talk
about, and then it came not from theology, but from the much
m.ore hopeful sources of a rational philosophy. Before Mon-
tesquieu no single stone of the foundation of scientific history
can be said to have been laid. Of course, far earlier writers had
sought after the circumstances which brought about a given
(1) Ordre Nat. cles Soc. FoL, p. 526.



CONDORCET. 83

transaction. Thucydides, for example, had attributed the cause
of the Peloponnesian war to the alarm of the Lacedaemonians
at the greatness of the power of Athens ; ^ and it is this sense
of the need of explanation, however rudimentary it may be,
which distinguishes the great historian from the chronicler,
even from a very superior chronicler like Livy, who in his
account of even so great an event as the Second Punic War
plunges straightway into narrative of what happened, without
concerning himself why it happened. Tacitus had begun his
Histories with remarks upon the condition of Rome, the feeling
of the various armies, the attitude of the provinces, so that, as
he says, 'non modo casus eventusque rerum, qui plerimique
fortuiti sunt, sed ratio etiam causaeque noscantur.' ^ But these
and the like instances in historical literature were only political
explanations, more or less adequate, of particular transactions ;
they were no more than the sagacious remarks of men with
statesmanlike minds, upon the origin of some single set of
circumstances.

The rise from this to the high degree of generality which
marks the speculations of Montesquieu, empirical as they are^
was as great as the rise from the mere maxims of worldly
wisdom to the widest principles of ethical philosophy. It was
he who first applied the comparative method to social institu-
tions ; who first considered physical conditions or climate, as
we now call the sum of local circumstances, in connection with
the laws of a country ; who first perceived and illustrated how
the natural order which the Physiocrats only considered in
relation to the phenomena of wealth and its production, really
extended over its political phenomena as well ; who first set
the example of viewing a great number of social facts all over
the world in groups and classes ; and who first definitely and
(1) Bk. i. 23. (2) Hist., i. 4.

G 2



84 CONDORCET.

systematically inquired into the causes of a set of complex
historical events and institutions, as being both discoverable
and intelligible. This was a very marked advance upon both of
the ideas, by one or other of which men had previously been
content to explain to themselves the coui'se of circumstances in
the world ; either the inscrutable decrees of an inhuman pro-
vidence, or the fortuitous vagaries of an eyeless destiny.

It was Turgot, however, who completed the historical con-
ception of Montesquieu, in a piece written in 1750, two years
after the appearance of the Esprit des Lois, and in one or two
other fragmentary compositions of about the same time, which
are not the less remarkable because the "sv^riter was only twenty-
three years old when these advanced ideas presented themselves
to his intelligence. Yico in Italy had insisted on the doctrine
that the course of human affairs is in a cycle, and that they
move in a constant and self-repeating orbit. ^ Turgot, on the
contrary, with more wisdom, at the opening of his subject is
careful to distinguish the ever- varying spectacle of the succes-
sion of men from generation to generation, from the circle of
identical revolutions in which the phenomena of nature are
enclosed. In the one case time only restores at each instant
the image of what it has just caused to disappear : in the other,
the reason and the passions are ever incessantly producing new
events. ' All the ages are linked together by a succession of
causes and effects which bind the state of the world to all the
states that have gone before. The multiplied signs of speech
and writing, in supplying men with the means of an assured
possession of theii' thoughts and of communicating them to one

(1) The well-kno-wn words of Thucydides may contain the germ of the same
idea, when he speaks of the future as being likely to represent again, after the
fashion of human things, ' if not the very image, yet the near resemblance of the
past,' i. 22. 4.



CONDORCET. 85

another, have formed a common treasure that one generation
transmits to another, as an inheritance constantly augmented
by the discoveries of each generation ; and the human race,
looked at from its origin, appears in the eyes of the philosopher
one immense whole, which, just as in the case of each individual,
has its infancy and its growth.' ^

Pascal and others in ancient and modern times ^ had com-
pared in casual and unfruitful remarks the history of the race
to the history of the individual, but Turgot was able in some
sort to see the frJl meaning and extent of the analogy, as well
as the limitations proj)er to it, and to draw from it some of the
larger principles which the idea involved. The first proposition
in the passage just quoted, that a chain of causes and effects
unites each age with every other age that has gone before, is
one of the most memorable sentences in the history of thought.
And Turgot not only saw that there is a relation of cause and
effect between successive states of society ; he had glimpses
into some of the conditions of that relation. To a generation
that stands on loftier heights his attempts seem rudimentary
and strangely simple, but it was these attempts which cut the
steps for our ascent. How is it, he asked, for instance, that the
succession of social states is not uniform ; that they follow with
unequal step along the track marked out for them ? He found
the answer in the inequality of natural advantages, and he was
able to discern the necessity of including in these advantages
the presence, apparently accidental, in some communities and
not in others of men of especial genius or capacity in some
important direction.^ Again, he saw that just as in one way
natural advantages accelerate the progress of a society, in

(1) Bisconrs en Sorbonnc. (Euvres de Turgo1,u. 5%"!. (Edition of 1844.)

(2) Cf. Sir G. C. Lewie's Methods of Observation in Politics, ii. 439, note.

(3) (Euvres de Turgot, ii. 599, 645, &c.



86 CONDORCET.

another natural obstacles also accelerate it, by stimulating men
to the efforts necessary to overcome them : le besoin perfectionne
I' instrument} The importance of following the march of the
human mind over all the grooves along which it travels to
further knowledge was fully present to him, and he dwells
repeatedly on the constant play going on between discoveries
in one science and those in another. In no writer is there
a fuller and more distinct sense of the essential unity and
integrity of the history of mankind, nor of the multitude of the
mansions in which this vast house is divided, and the many
keys which he must possess that would open and enter in.

Even in empirical explanations he shows a breadth and
accuracy of vision truly striking, considering his own youth
and what we may venture to call the youth of his subject. The
reader will be able to appreciate this, and to discern at the
same time the arbitrary nature of Montesquieu's method, if he
will contrast, for example, the remarks of this writer upon
polygamy with the far wider and more sagacious explanation
of the circumstances of such an institution given by Turgot.^
Unfortunately, he has left us only short and fragmentary
pieces, but they suggest more than many large and complete
works. That they had a very powerful and direct influence
upon Condorcet there is no doubt, as well from the similarity
of general conception between him and Turgot, as from the
Nearly perfect identity of leading passages in their writings,
iL&t us add that in Turgot's fragments we have what is
unhappily not a characteristic of Condorcet, the peculiar satis-
faction and delight in scientific history of a style which states
a fact in such phrases as serve also to reveal its origin, bearings,

(1) (Emres de Turgot, ii. 601.

(2) JEsprit des Lois, xvi. cc. 2 — 4. And Discotirs sur VEistoire Universelle, in
Turgot's Works, ii. 640—641.



CONDORCET. 87

significance ; in wliicli every successive piece of description is
so worded as to be self- evidently a link in the ctain of explana-
tion, an ordered term in a series of social conditions.

Before returning to Condorcet, we ought to glance at the
remarkable piece, -written in 1784, in which Kant propounded
his idea of a universal or cosmo-political history, that contem-
plating the agency of the human will upon a large scale shoidd
unfold to our view a regular stream of tendency in the great
succession of events.^ The will metaphysically considered,
Kant said, is free, but its manifestations, that is to say, human
actions, 'are as much under the control of universal laws of
nature as any other physical phenomena.'

The very same course of incidents, which taken separately
and individually would have seemed perplexed and incoherent,
* yet viewed in their connection and as the action of the human
species and not of independent beings, never fail to observe a
steady and continuous though slow development of certain great
predispositions in our nature.' As it is impossible to presume
in the human race any rational purpose of its own, we must
seek to observe some natural purpose in the current of human
actions. Thus a history of creatures with no plan of their own,
may yet admit a systematic form as a history of creatures blindly
pursuing a plan of nature. Now we know that all predisposi-
tions are destined to develop themselves according to their
final purpose. Man's rational predispositions are destined to
develop themselves in the species and not in the individual.
History then is the progress of the development of all the
tendencies laid in man by nature. The method of development
is the antagonism of these tendencies in the social state, and
its source the unsocial socialite/ of man — a tendency to enter the

(1) Idea of a Universal History on a Cosmo-Political Plan. It was translated by
De Quincey, and is to be found in vol. xiii. of bis collected works, pp. 133 — 152.



88 CONDORCET.

social state, combined witli a perpetual resistance to that ten-
dency, whicli is ever threatening to dissolve it. The play of
these tTvo tendencies unfolds talents of every kind, and by
gi'adual increase of light a preparation is made for such a mode
of thinking as is capable of ' exalting a social concert that had
been pathologically extorted from the mere necessities of situa-
tion, into a moral union founded on the reasonable choice,'
Hence the highest problem for man is the establishment of a
imiversal civil society, fomided on the empire of political justice ;
and ' the history of the hmnan species as a whole may be
regarded as the unravelling of a hidden plan of nature for
accomplishing a perfect state of civil constitution for society in
its internal relations (and, as the condition of that, in its
external relations also), as the sole state of society in which the
tendencies of himian nature can be all and fully developed.'
Nor is this all. We shall not only be able to imravel the
intricate web of past affairs, but shall also find a clue for the
guidance of future statesmen in the art of political prediction.
Nay more, this clue * will open a consolatory prospect into
futurity, in which at a remote distance we shall observe the
human species seated upon an eminence won by infinite toil,
where all the germs are unfolded which nature has implanted,
and its destination on this earth accomplished.'

That this conception involves an assumption about tendencies
and final purposes which reverses the true method of history,
and moreover reduces what ought to be a scientific inquiry to
be a foregone justification of nature or providence, should not



Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 7 of 29)