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prevent us from appreciating its signal merits in insisting on a
systematic presentation of the collective activity of the race,
and in pointing out, however cursorily, the use of such an
elucidation of the past in furnishing the grounds of practical
guidance in dealing with the future and in preparing it. Con-


slderlng the brevity of this little tract, its pregnancy and
suggestiveness have not often been equalled. We have seen
enouffh of it here to enable us to realise the diiFerences between
this and the French school with its wholesome objectivity,
resulting from the stage which had been reached in France by
the physical sciences. Condorcet's series of eloges shows
unmistakably how deep an impression the history of physical
discovery had made upon him, and how clearly he miderstood
the value of its methods. The peculiar study which their
composition had occasioned him, is of itself almost enough to
account for the fact that a conception which had long been
preparing in the sujDerior minds of the time, should fully develop
itself in him rather than in anybody else.


The Physiocrats, as we have seen, had introduced the idea
of there being a natural order in social circumstances, that
order being natural which is most advantageous to mankind.
Turgot had declared that one age is bound to another by a chain
of causation. Condorcet fused these two conceptions. He
viewed the history of the ages as a whole, and found in their
succession a natural order ; an order which when uninterrupted
and undisturbed tended to accumulate untold advantages upon
the human race, which was every day becoming more plain to
the vision of men, and therefore every day more and more
assured from disturbance by ignorant prejudice and sinister
interests. There is an order at once among the cii"cumstances
of a given generation, and among the successive sets of circum-
stances of successive generations. ' If we consider the develop-
ment of human faculties in its residts relating to the individuals
who exist at the same time on a given space, and if we follow
it from generation to generation, then we have before us the


picture of the progress of the human mind. This progress
is subject to the same general laws that are to be observed in
the development of the faculties of individuals, for it is the
result of that development, considered at the same time in a
great number of individuals united in society. But the residt
that presents itself at any one instant depends upon that which
was offered by the instants preceding ; in turn it influences the
result in times still to follow.'

This picture will be of a historical character, inasmuch as
being subject to perpetual variations it is formed by the obser-
vation in due order of different human societies in different
epochs through which they have passed. It will expose the
order of the various changes, the influence exercised by each
period over the next, and thus will show in the modifications
impressed upon the race, ever renewing itself in the immensity
of the ages, the track that it has followed, and the exact steps
that it has taken towards truth and happiness. Such observa-
tion of what man has been and of what he is, will then lead us
to means proper for assuring and accelerating the fresh pro-
gress that his nature allows us to anticipate still further.^

* If a man is able to predict with nearly perfect confidence,
phenomena with whose laws he is acquainted ; if, even when
they are unknown to him, he is able, in accordance with the
experience of the past, to foresee with a large degree of proba-
bility the events of the future ; why should we treat it as
a chimerical enterprise to trace with some verisimilitude the
picture of the future destinies of the human race in accordance
with the results of its history ? The only foundation of belief
in the natural sciences is this idea, that the general laws known
or unknown which regulate the phenomena of the universe are
necessary and constant ; and why should this principle be less
(1) Tableau des Frogris dc V Esprit Humain. (Euvres, vi, 12, 13.


true for tlie development of the moral and intellectual faculties
of man tlian for other natural operations ? In short, opinions
grounded on past experience in ohjects of the same order being
the single rule of conduct for even the wisest men, why should
the philosopher be forbidden to rest his conjectures on this
same base, provided he never attributes to them a degree of
certainty beyond what is warranted by the number, the con-
stancy, and the accuracy of his observations ? ' ^

Thus Condorcet's purpose was not to justify nature, as it
had been with Kant, but to search in the past for rational
grounds of a belief in the unbounded splendour of men's future
destinies. His view of the character of the relations among
the circumstances of the social union, either at a given moment
or in a succession of periods, was both accurate and far-sighted.
When he came actually to execute his own great idea, and to
specify the manner in which those relations arose and operated,
he instantly diverged from the right path. Progress in his mind
is exclusively produced by improvement in intelligence. It is
the necessary result of man's activity in the face of that dispro-
portion ever existing between what he knows and what he
desires and feels the necessity to know.^ Hence the most fatal
of the errors of Condorcet's sketch. He measures only the
contributions made by nations and eras to what we know ;
leaving out of sight their failures and successes in the elevation
of moral standards and ideals, and in the purification of the

Now even if we hold the intellectual principle only to be
progressive, and the moral elements to be fixed, being coloured
and shaped and quickened by the surrounding intellectual con-
ditions, still, inasmuch as the manner of this shaping and
colouring is continually changing and leading to the most
(1) vi. 236. (2) vi. 21.


important transformations of human activity and sentiment, it
must obviously be a radical deficiency in any picture of social
progress to leave out tbe development of ethics, whether it be a
derivative or an independent and spontaneous development.
One seeks in vain in Condorcet's sketch for any account of the
natural history of "Western morals, or for any sign of conscious-
ness on his part that the difference in ethical discipline and
feeling between the most ferocious of primitive tribes and
the most enlightened eighteenth-century Frenchmen, was a
result of evolution that needed historical explanation, quite as
much as the difference between the astrolatry of one age and
the astronomy of another. "We find no recognition of the
propriety of recounting the various steps of that long process
by which, to use Kant's pregnant phrase, the relations born of
pathological necessity were metamorphosed into those of moral
union. The grave and lofty feeling, for example, which in-
spired the last words of the Tableau — whence came it ? Of
what long-drawn chain of causes in the past was it the last
effect ? It will not do to refer us generally to previous advances
in knowledge and intellectual emancipation, because even sup-
posing the successive modifications of our moral sensibilities to
be fundamentally due to the progress of intellectual enlighten-
ment, we still want to know in the first place something about
the influences which harness one process to the other, and in
the second place, something about the particular directions
which these modifications of moral constitution have taken.

If this is one very radical omission in Condorcet's scheme,
his angry and vehement aversion for the various religions of
the world (with perhaps one exception) is a sin of commission
still more damaging to its completeness. That he should
detest the corrupt and oppressive forms of religion of his own
century was neither surprising nor blamable. An unfavour-


able view of the influences upon human development of the
Christian belief even in its least corrupt forms was not by any
means untenable. Nay, he might without absurdity have
gone further than this, and depicted religion as a natural
infirmity of the human mind in its immature stages, just as
there are specific disorders incident in childhood to the human
body. Even on this theory, he was bound to handle it with
the same calmness which he would have expected to find in a
pathological treatise by a physician. Who would write of the
sweating sickness with indignation, or describe zymotic diseases
with resentment ? Condorcet's pertinacious anger against
theology is just as irrational as this would be, from the scientific
point of view which he j^retends to have assumed. Theology, in
fact, was partly avenged of her assailants, for she had in the
struggle contrived to infect them with the contagion of her own
traditional spirit.

From the earliest times to the latest it is all one story
according to Condorcet. He can speak with respect of philo-
sophies even when, as in the case of the Scotch school of the
last centiiry, he dislikes and condemns them.^ Of religion his
contempt and hatred only vary slightly in degree. Barbarous
tribes have sorcerers, trading on the gross superstitions of their
duj)es ; so in other guise and with different names have civilised
nations to-day. As other arts progressed, superstition too
became less rude ; priestly families kept all knowledge in their
own hands, and thus preserved their hypocritical and tyrannical
assumptions from detection. They disclosed nothing to the
people without some supernatural admixture, the better to
maintain their personal pretensions. They had two doctrines,
one for themselves and the other for their people ; sometimes,
as they were divided into several orders, each of them reserved

(1) vi, 18G.


to itself certain mysteries. Thus all the inferior orders were at
once rogues and dupes, and the great system of hypocrisy was
only known in all its completeness to a few adepts. Christianity
belonged to the same class. Its priests, we must admit, ' in
spite of their knaveries and their vices, were enthusiasts ready
to perish for their doctrines.' In vain did Julian endeavour
to deliver the empire from the scourge. Its triumph was the
signal for the incurable decay of all art and knowledge. The
Church may seem to have done some good in things where her
interests did not happen to clash with the interests of Europe,
as in helping to abolish slavery, for instance ; but after all
' circumstances and manners ' would have produced the result
necessarily and of themselves. Morality, which was taught by
the priests only, contained those universal principles that have
been imknown to no sect ; but it created a host of purely reli-
gious duties, and of imaginary sins. These duties were more
rigorously enjoined than those of nature, and actions that were
indifferent, legitimate, or even virtuous, were more severely
rebuked and punished than real crimes. Yet, on the other
hand, a moment of repentance, consecrated by the absolution of
a priest, opened the gates of heaven to the worst miscreants.^

In the opening of the last of these remarks there is much
justice. So there is in the striking suggestion made in another
place, that we should not bless erroneous systems for their
utility, simply because they help to repair some small part of
the mischief of which they have themselves been the principal
cause.^ But on the whole it is obvious that Condorcet was
unfitted by his temper and that of the school to which he most
belonged from accepting religion as a fact in the history of the

(1) (Euvres, vi. pp. 35, 55, 101, 102, 111, 117, 118, &c.

(2) Dissertation sur cette question: S' il est utile atix hommes cV etre tromjjes ? —
one of the best of Condorcet's writings. (Euvres, v. 360.


human mind, that must have some positive explanation. To
look at it in this way as the creation of a handful of selfish
impostors in each community, was to show a radical incom-
petence to carry out the scheme which had been so scientifically
projected. The picture is ruined by the angry caricature of
what ought to have been one of the most important figures in
it ; to this place the Christian church is undeniably entitled,
however we may be disposed to strike the balance between the
imdoubted injuries and the undoubted advantages which it has
been the means of dealing to the civilisation of the west.
Never perhaps was there so thorough an inversion of the true
view of the comparative elevation of different parts of human
character, as is implied in Condorcet's strange hint that Crom-
well's satellites would have been much better men if they had
carried instead of the bible at their saddle-bows some merry
book of the stamp of Voltaire's Pucelle}

Apart from the misreading of history in explaining religion
by the folly of the many and the frauds of a few, Condorcet's
interpretation involved the profoundest infidelity to his own
doctrine of the intrinsic purity and exaltation of human nature.
This doctrine ought in all reason to have led him to look for
the secret of the popular acceptance of beliefs that to him
seemed most outrageous, in some possibly finer side which they
might possess for others, appealing not to the lower but to the
higher qualities of a nature with instincts of perfection. Take
his account of purgatory, for instance. The priests, he says,
drew up so minute and comprehensive a table of sins that
nobody could hope to escape from censure. Here you come
upon one of the most lucrative branches of the sacerdotal
trafficking ; people were taught to imagine a hell of limited

(1) See Condorcet's vindication of the Tucclle in his Life of Voltaire. CEutuss,
iv. 88—89.


duration, wliicli the priests only had the power to abridge ; and
this grace they sold, first to the living, then to the kinsmen
and friends of the dead.^ Now it was surely more worthy of a
belief in the natural depravity than in the natural perfectibility
of the sons of Adam, thus to assume without parley or proviso
a base mercenariness on the one hand and grovelling terror on
the other, as the origin of a doctrine which was obviously sus-
ceptible of a kinder explanation, that should refer it to a merci-
ful and afifectionate and truly humanising anxiety to assuage
the horrors of what is perhaps the most frightful idea that has
ever corroded human character, the idea of eternal punishment.
We could in part have pardoned Condorcet if he had striven to
invent ever so fanciful origins for opinions and belief in his
solicitude for the credit of humanity. As it is, he distorts the
history of religion only to humanity's discredit. How, if the
people were always predisposed to virtue, were priests, sprung
of the same people and bred in the same traditions, so invariably
and incurably devoted to baseness and hypocrisy ? Was the
nature of a priest absolutely devoid of what physicians call
recuperative force, restoring them to a sound mind in spite of
professional perversion ? In fine, if man had been so grossly
enslaved in moral nature from the beginning of the world down
to the year 1789 or thereabouts, how was it possible that not-
withstanding the admitted slowness of civilising processes, he
should suddenly spring forth the very jaerfectible and nearly
perfected being that Condorcet passionately imagined him

(1) vi. 118.

(2) As M. Comte says in his remarks on Condorcet {FMl. Pos., iv. 185 — 193),
* Le progres total finalement accompli ne peut etre sans doute que le resultat
general de 1' accumulation spontanee des divers progres partiels successivement
realises depuis I'origine de la civilisation, en vertu de la marche successivement
lente et graduelle de la nature humaine ; ' so that Condorcet's picture presents a


It has already been hinted that there was one partial excep-
tion to Condorcet's otherwise all-embracing animosity against
religion. This was Mahometanism. Towards this his attitude
is fully appreciative, though of course he deplores the supersti-
tions which mixed themselves up with the Arabian proiDhet's
efforts for the purification of the men of his nation. After
the seven vials of fiery yrath have been poured out upon the
creed of Palestine, it is refreshing to find the creed of Arabia
almost patronised and praised. The writer who could not have
found in his heart to think Gregory the Great or Ilildebrand
other than a mercenary impostor, nor Cromwell other than an
ambitious hypocrite, admits with exquisite blandness of Maho-
met that he had the art of employing all the means of sub-
jugating men avec adresse, mais avec grandeur} Another reason,
no doubt, besides his hatred of the Church lay at the bottom of
Condorcet's tolerance or more towards Mahometanism. The
Arabian superstition was not fatal to knowledge. On the con-
trary, it was among its professors and disciples that the torch
of science was kept aKve, while in Christendom it lay trampled
down and extinct. Arabian activity in algebra, chemistry,
optics, and astronomy, atoned in Condorcet's eyes for the

It is fair to add further, that Condorcet showed a more
just appreciation of the effects of Protestantism upon Western
development than has been common among French thinkers.
He recognises that men who had learnt, however imperfectly, to
submit their religious prejudices to rational examination, would
natiu-ally be likely to extend the process to political prejudices

standing miracle, ' oil Ton s'est in§me interdit d'abord la ressource vulgaire de la
Pro%'idence.' Comte's criticism, ho-wever, seems to leave out of sight what full
justice Condorcet did to the various partial advances in the intellectual order.
(1) vi. 120—123.



also. Moreover, if tlie reformed cliurclies refused to render to
reason all its rights, still tliey agreed that its prison should be
less narrow ; the chain was not broken, but it ceased to be
either so heavy or so short as it had been. And in countries
where what was insolently styled tolerance by the dominant
sect succeeded in establishing itself, it was possible to maintain
the tolerated doctrines with a more o^ less complete freedom.
So there arose in Europe a sort of freedom of thought, not for
men, but for Christians ; and, * if we except France, it is only
for Christians that it exists anywhere else at the present day,'
a limitation which has now fortunately ceased to be altogether

If we have smiled at the ease with which what is rank
craftiness in a Christian is toned down into address in a Maho-
metan, we may be amused too at the leniency that describes
some of the propagandist methods of the eighteenth century.
Condorcet becomes rapturous as he tells in a paragraph of fine
sustention with what admixture of the wisdom of the serpent
the humane philosophers of his century ' covered the truth with
a veil that prevented it from hurting too weak sight, and left
the pleasure of conjecturing it; caressing prejudices with
address, to deal them the more certain blows ; scarcely ever
threatening them, nor ever more than one at once, nor even
one in its integrity ; sometimes consoling the enemies of reason
by pretending to desire no more than a half-tolerance in reli-
gion and a half-liberty in politics ; conciliating despotism while
they combated the absurdities of religion, and religion when
they rose against despotism ; attacking these two scourges in
their principle, even when they seemed only to bear ill-wiU to
revolting or ridiculous abuses, and striking these poisonous
trees in their very roots, while they appeared to be doing no
(1) vi. 149, and 153.


more tlian pruning crooked branches.'^ Imagine the holy
rage with which such acts would have been attacked, if Con-
dorcet had happened to be writing about the Jesuits. Alas !
the stern and serene composure of the historical conscience was
as unknown to him as it is always to orthodox ajjologists. It
is to be said, moreover, that he had less excuse for being with-
out it, for he rested on the goodness of men, and not as theo-
logians do on their vileness. It is a most interesting thing, we
may notice in passing, to consider what was the effect upon
the Revolution of this artfulness or prudence with which its
theoretic precursors sowed the seed. Was it as truly wise as
Condorcet supposed ? Or did it weaken, almost corrupt, the
very roots ? Was it the secret of the thoroughness with which
the work of demolition was done ? Was it, too, the secret of
the many and disastrous failures in the task of reconstruction ?^
There are one or two detached remarks suggested by Con-
dorcet's picture, which it may be worth while to make. He is

(1) Ti. 187—189.

(2) It is worth while to quote on this subject a passage from Condorcet as
historically instructive as it is morally dangerous. * La n^cessite de mentir pour
desavouer un ouvrage est une extremite qui repugne egalement a la conscience
et a la noblesse du caractfere ; mais le crime est pour les hommea injustes qui
rendent ce desaveu necessaire k la surete de celui qu'ils y forcent. Si vous arez
erige en crime ce qui n'en est pas un, si vous avez porte atteinte, par des lois
absurdes ou par des lois arbitraires, au droit naturel qu'ont tous les hommes, non
seulement d' avoir une opinion, mais de la rendre publique, alors vous m6ritez de
perdre celui qu'a chaque homme d' entendre la verity de la bouche d'un autre,
droit qui fonde seul I'obligation rigoureuse de ne pas mentir. S'il n'est pas
permis de tromper, c'est parceque tromper quelqu'un, c'est lui fairo un tort, ou
s'exposer a lui en faire un ; mais le tort suppose un droit, et personnc n'a celui
de chercher a s' assurer les moyens de commettre une injustice.' Vie de Voltaire ;
(Euvres, iv. 33, 3-1. Condorcet might have found some countenance for his
sophisms in Plato (Republ. ii. 383) ; but even Plato restricted the privilege of
lying to statesmen (iii. 389). He was in a wiser mood when ho declared
{(Euvres, v. 384) that it is better to be imprudent than a hypocrite, — though for
that matter these are hardly the only alternatives.

H 3


fully alive, for example, to the importance to mankind of tlie
appearance among them of one of those men of creative genius,
like Archimedes or like Newton, whose lives constitute an
epoch in human history ; their very existence he saw to be
among the greatest benefits conferred on the race by Nature.
He hardly seems to have been struck, on the other hand, with
the appalling and incessant waste of these benefits that goes
on ; with the number of men of Newtonian capacity who are
undoubtedly born into the world only to chronicle small beer ;
with the hosts of high and worthy souls who labour and flit
away like shadows, perishing in the accomplishment of minor
and subordinate ends. We may suspect that the notion of all
this immeasurable profusion of priceless treasures, its position
as one of the laws of the condition of man on the globe, would
be unspeakably hard of endurance to one holding Condorcet's
peculiar form of optimism.

Again, if we had space, it woidd be worth while to examine
some of the acute and ingenious hints which Condorcet throws
out by the way : to consider, as he suggests, the influence upon
the progress of the human mind of the change from writing on
science, philosophy, and jurisprudence in Latin, to the usual
language of each country, — a change which rendered the
sciences more popular, but increased the trouble of the scientific
men in following the general march of knowledge ; which
caused a book to be read in one country by more men of
inferior competence, but less read throughout Europe by men
of superior light ; which relieves men who have no leisure for
extensive study of the trouble of learning Latin, but imposes
upon profounder persons the necessity of learning a variety of
modern languages.^ Again, ground is broken for the most
important reflection in the remark that 'men preserve the

(1) vi. 163.


prejudices of tlieir ehildliood, their country, and their age, long
after they have recognised all the truths necessary to destroy
them ; ' ^ and in this, that the progress of phj^sical knowledge
is constantly destroying in silence erroneous opinions which
had never seemed to be attacked.^ And in reading history,
how much ignorance and misinterpretation would have been

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 8 of 29)