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Sketch of Condorcet's Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind
by Caspar Hewett

via Wikimedia Commons
Condorcet’s Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind was written in the last few months of his life when on the run, having been condemned to death in the wake of the French Revolution. In hiding as he was, and in fear of his life, he found himself, rather than writing another polemic, or trying to justify his actions, deciding to devote the time left to him to writing a work of lasting utility to humanity.

While it is clearly related to much that had already been written about the rights of man, and discarding the superstition and authority of the past, this was a very different type of work. Through an historical study of the development of human thought, Condorcet hoped to point the way towards future improvement of the human condition. His history consists of nine “grand epochs” of the past, and a tenth epoch in which he advances “some conjectures upon the future destiny of mankind.” However, while his description certainly has time dependence running it, with a corresponding advance in human understanding and material well being, Condorcet is clear that progress is uneven. This is not a naïve view of a continual improvement in the human conditions – not everyone benefits from advances that are made; knowledge and wealth are not always shared; and the states described in each epoch actually frequently run alongside each other. He is explicit in pointing out that there are even people who still live in states corresponding to the first and second epochs. However, part of the point of recognising the progress that has already been made is to point to a trajectory towards a better future state.

First epoch: Men united into hordes

Condorcet’s first epoch is that in which humans lived as hunter gatherers. Initially families lived together, but people eventually congregated into hordes consisting of several distinct families. There were the beginnings of the

It also saw “the origin of the first political institutions” in the form of chiefs emerging and the exclusion of women from decision making. Condorcet explicitly assumes that “language must have preceded these institutions.” He also draws attention to two kinds of progress that belong equally to the human species – that instigated by individual intelligence and collective developments (“the formation of the bow was the work of a single man of genius; the formation of a language that of the whole society.”) Even in this first epoch Condorcet supposed there was a separation between people into those “destined to teach,” whether based on real knowledge or deceit, and those that follow, adding, in typically disdainful fashion, “we still see the remains in our priests.”

Second epoch: Pastoral state of mankind. – transition from that to the agricultural state

This period was characterised by the domestication of animals for food, milk and materials for clothing. People began to live less tiring way of life – living well beyond mere subsistence, allowing some time for the development of the mind. In this period differences in wealth were first established, as was the custom of retaining prisoners of war as slaves rather than killing them. Altruism and charity also first appear in this period – arising from differences in wealth. The idea of property and its associated rights developed, specifically related to inheritance, and there was a consequent inequality of political rights.

Condorcet supposes that the power of those who claimed supernatural insights first appeared in this epoch, attacking the church again, describing religion as “the art of deceiving men in order to rob them, and of assuming over their opinions an authority founded upon the hopes and fears of the imagination.” It also saw the enrichment of language and improvement of poetry, song and musical instruments, all as a consequence of increased leisure time. Three classes of people emerged – proprietors, the domestics of their family and slaves. He adds:

Third epoch: Progress of mankind from the agricultural state to the invention of alphabetical writing

The third epoch saw the growth of land ownership and a resulting increase in the wealth of proprietors, who withdrew the fruits of others’ labour. There was an increasing division of labour and specialisation. Animal husbandry, tool-making and expansion of commerce developed. Two new classes of people appeared – artisans and merchants. There was a move to education outside of family unit for the wealthy. There was also greater equality between the sexes as wives became more that “simple units of utility.” In some places people began to congregate in towns. Thus we see the creation of kingdoms and chiefdoms – also the first appearance of real power for individuals, and the associated corruption, resulting in some of the powerful commissioning “arbitrary acts of violence.” As a result, where “the excesses of these families exhausted the patience of the people” the first republics emerged. This was a period of conquest and despotism; empires with people of one country imposing their will on the people of another. Out of this came new classes – “the descendants of the conquering nation and those of the oppressed; an hereditary nobility” and “a people condemned to labour, to dependence, to a state of degradation, but not to slavery” in addition to slaves. The consequent intercourse between countries hastened the progress of various arts such as dyeing, making pottery and working metals. In the more sedentary and peaceable societies there was a (very slow) increase in knowledge of astronomy, medicine, anatomy and the beginnings of the study of natural phenomena. This was not real scientific knowledge as there was no methodical investigation, but rather, simple empirical laws obtained through observation. There was also the invention of “the ingenious idea of arithmetical scales” and the development of hieroglyphic writing which greatly increased the powers of the mind. However, those with power used these tools and knowledge

Thus they developed “two doctrines, one for themselves, the other for the people.” Finally came the invention of alphabetic writing in Asia, a powerful development that in time spread to Greece, where the next epoch began.

Fourth epoch: Progress of the mind in Greece, until the division of the sciences about the age of Alexander

Condorcet here discusses the early Greeks, describing the period as that of the “first dawn of philosophy and first advance of the sciences.” While he points out that the origins of much of Greek thought was in the east, he emphasises the importance of new institutional structures, in particular the creation of republics, in providing the individual freedom necessary to making progress in the search for knowledge. Political freedom allowed for independence of mind. This meant that the sciences, rather than remaining the preserve of the few, became accessible to many. The philosophers, the “friends of science and wisdom” wanted to understand the nature of humanity, the gods and the origin of the world. They tried “to reduce nature to a single principle and the phenomena of the universe to one law” and “attempted to include, in a single rule of conduct, all the duties of morality, and the secret of true happiness.” However, a number of factors held them back from making as much progress as they might otherwise have done. First, they were over-ambitious in “fixing the attention upon questions incapable perhaps for ever of being solved.” Secondly, they neglected observation and relied on imagination. Thirdly, rather than seeking precision and accuracy in the language they used, they played on the meaning of words, purposely expressing different ideas with the same phrases, something that was not conducive to developing sound science.

Despite these limitations notable advances were made in geometry and astronomy. In the work of Democritus and Pythagoras the seeds of Cartesian and Newtonian thought can be found: Democritus thought all phenomena were a “result of the combinations and motions of simple bodies” and Pythagoras believed that all natural phenomena were governed by “general laws capable of being ascertained by calculation.” Socrates, who cried to the Greeks to “recall to the earth this philosophy which had lost itself in the clouds,” respected astronomy, geometry and the observation of nature. His death is marked in the history of human thought as “the first crime” in the “war between philosophy and superstition.” The priests, afraid of the rise of reason, persecuted the philosophers, accusing them of impiety to the gods. Socrates, aware of the risks he was running in his pursuit of truth, “announced to the priests that truth alone was the end he had in view; that he did not wish to enforce upon men a new system” but wanted to teach them to use their own reason. This, of all crimes, was considered the worst by the priestly cast. Socrates disciple, Plato, was more cautious. He used his master’s voice to explore his philosophical questions, taking care that Socrates “is made to express himself with the modesty of doubt.” The schools that followed were united “by the ties of a liberal fraternity, men intent upon penetrating the secrets of nature.” These schools, or sects, were extremely important in keeping a “taste for philosophy” alive, especially since printing had yet to be invented, limiting the spread of ideas. Their retention of the need for freedom of thought ensured that the degradation of reason was not to be feared.

Condorcet moves on to a discussion of the political thought that emerged from the different sects. He is not interested in the details of their ideas, but in the general errors they made in their understanding and from where they came. A key problem is that slavery was the norm in their society and thus even “the most perfect forms of government had for their object the liberty or happiness of at most but half the human species.” Much of their political thought also made the error of appealing to common prejudices and vices rather than trying to dispel them. Thus they often used arguments that were intentionally misleading. However, despite their limitations, they were successful in proposing almost every form of institution that can be found in modern states, a truly remarkable achievement. Even political economy, a relatively new development in Condorcet’s time, is presupposed by Greek thought.

Finally, Condorcet draws attention to the rise of the fine arts, which reached during this epoch “a degree of perfection known at that time to no other people, and scarcely equalled since by almost any nation.” He suggests that this development is intimately connected to the social structures that appeared in this period, in particular “the fall of tyrants and the formation of republics,” arguing that the vices of the Greeks were remnants of previous eras, and that “the progress of virtue has ever accompanied that of knowledge, as the progress of corruption has always followed or announced its decline.”

Fifth Epoch. Progress of the Sciences, From their Division to their Decline

In this epoch Condorcet begins with the late Greeks, moving through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the growth of Christianity, and the subsequent decline in philosophy and the natural sciences. He begins by sketching the contributions made by a selection of the Greek thinkers and sects, picking out what he sees as the key strengths and weaknesses of their thought.

Aristotle embraced all the sciences and extended the methods of philosophy to all areas of human endeavour. The more comprehensive his vision became, the more he saw the need to separate different areas of knowledge, “fixing with greater precision the limits of each.” His history of animals provided the foundations for accurate observation and description of the natural world, although he failed to apply the same rigour to other natural sciences. The main problem was the lack of the experimental method, which had yet to be conceived. Thus, most of the progress in the natural sciences made in this epoch was hit on by chance.

Archimedes, whose life “forms an epoch in the history of man,” developed the theory of limits and the calculus of infinities, using his methods to calculate the surface area of a sphere and calculate the value of ? more accurately than any of his predecessors. He also developed the theory of the lever and discovered the principle “that a body immersed in any fluid, loses a portion of its weight equal to the mass of water displaced.”

Discussing along the way Epicurus, the Academics and the stoics, Condorcet points to the way the mathematical and physical sciences transcended the difference between different thinkers and schools. This was due to their foundation in calculation and observation. This independence, combined with the usefulness of the knowledge for navigation and commerce, ensured its survival as the Greek states fell and Rome ascended.

Condorcet is scathing of the rise of the new religion which came out of decline of the Roman Empire – Christianity:

Unfortunately, since printing had yet to be invented, many great works were lost to posterity in the period that followed, and it was only because some knowledge found asylum in the East that any of the works of the previous period were later recovered. What is more, there grew towards the end of this epoch a tendency to revere ancient works, not based on their merit, but on the names of the authors; “to found belief upon authority, rather than upon reason.”

Sixth Epoch. Decline of Learning, to its Restoration about the Period of the Crusades

Condorcet describes the period of the rise of feudalism as “the disastrous epoch” in which “Ignorance marches in triumph.” It was characterised by “theological reveries, superstitious delusions … religious intolerance … tyranny and military despotism.” In the West “the decline was more rapid and absolute” while in the East “the decline was slower.” However, it did at least see the end of domestic slavery, which was to have far reaching consequences.

Most of what Condorcet describes as the “barbarian nations” established new social relations, typically ruled over by a king, with a council that “pronounced judgements and made most decisions,” an “assembly of private chiefs,” and an “assembly of the people.” A new form of power over the people developed with the emergence of a nobility who had access to iron armour and shields to protect themselves and their horses, and who wielded the weapons of the age with skill – the lance, club and sword. In this “feudal anarchy,” “the people groaned under the triple tyranny of kings, leaders of armies and priests.” However, there were a few institutions that helped to preserve “some feeble idea” of the rights of men, and thus “were destined one day to serve as an index to their recognition and restoration.”

Rome, which managed to retain “a sort of independence,” commanded in the name of God, imposing

In this epoch the church invented “a multitude of duties purely religious, and of imaginary sins.” The idea of absolution for a tariff was created, solidifying the power of the clergy and making it rich: “They sold so much land in heaven for an equal quantity of land upon earth.” The monks invented miracles old and new in order to deceive and rob the people.

In the East, some of the old knowledge survived: “the inhabitants of Constantinople could still read Homer and Sophocles, Thucydides and Plato.”

At the edge of Asia next came Mohammed, “a man of ardent enthusiasm and most profound policy, born with the talents of a poet, as well as a warrior … At once legislator, prophet, priest, judge, and general of the army, he was in possession of all the means of subjugating the mind.” His influence was “to change the face of three quarters of the globe.”

The Arabs studied Aristotle, cultivated astronomy, optics and medicine, and introduced some new ideas into science: they generalised the application of algebra and made the first steps in the development of chemistry as a scientific discipline. The sciences were free, although “the people were subjected to the unmitigated despotism of religion.”

Seventh Epoch. From the First Progress of the Sciences about the Period of their Revival in the West, to the Invention of the Art of Printing

It is in this period that “human reason began to recover the recollection of its rights and its liberty.” Condorcet begins by describing the growth of opposition to Catholicism: There was a reaction against the power of both the clergy and the kings which resulted in some new freedoms and an increase in the number of people “who enjoyed the common right of citizens.” It was also the period of the holy crusades which, while they aimed to strengthen Christianity’s hand and were thus “undertaken with superstitious views,” in practice they “served to destroy superstition.” This was thanks to the resulting contact between Europeans and Arabians that helped to restore the knowledge of the ancients in Europe.

The rediscovery of the work of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, transformed education and revived the art of reasoning. However “this method could not fail to retard in the schools the advancement of the natural sciences,” and thus it failed at this point to lead to the discovery of much knowledge. Nevertheless, two discoveries helped to revolutionise the period – the compass and gunpowder.

Huge changes took place in the social systems throughout Europe. Republics were formed, independent towns and states emerged, constitutions were written and the power of the kings and feudal laws were undermined. In England the Magna Carta established certain rights of the King's subjects. Elsewhere similar charters were agreed, foretelling the declarations of the rights of man that would follow in the next epoch.

One outcome of the invention of firearms is that it changed society in a way only indirectly related to warfare. Sheer numbers of people, the size of an army, were no longer the main factor in winning a battle. The means to afford firearms became far more important;

Meanwhile, changes in language, influenced by a new “taste for letters and poetry,” were beginning to transform the arts. Here Condorcet gives brief mention of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch whose genius set in motion the Renaissance that was to come. At this time the idea that “the rights of man were written in the book of nature” came back to the fore. However,

Eighth Epoch. From the Invention of Printing, to the Period when the Sciences and Philosophy Threw off the Yoke of Authority

Condorcet opens this section with a lengthy discussion of the consequences of the invention of the printing press, summed up by the following sentence: “All those means which render the progress of the human mind more easy, more rapid, more certain, are also the benefits of the press.” It freed the people from “every political and religious chain; it was harder to stifle knowledge as it became almost impossible to destroy every copy of a given book.

Two other momentous events took place around the same time: the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, which had “an immediate influence on the progress of knowledge,” and the “discovery of both the new world, and of the route which has opened to Europe a direct communication with the eastern parts of Africa and Asia” on which the influence “on the destiny of the whole human species can never cease but with the species itself.”

Condorcet discusses next the rise of Protestantism and the backlash that followed it. However, despite the attempts of the Catholic Church to stifle free thought and persecute those that spoke against it, it failed to stop new ideas from spreading. The rediscovery of the ancient Greeks aided the development of free thinking, as philosophers began again to use their own reason, arguing about the claims of different doctrines. Finding themselves persecuted, philosophers were cautious, and often decided not to expose themselves, meaning that freedom of thought developed only to a limited extent, staying within the confines of Christianity.

However the time was ripe for change and

Little “actual progress” towards freedom was made in this epoch, but many changes were made to laws and institutions that meant that future change became more of a possibility. In fact, the epoch was “blotted” by religious massacres, holy wars, the depopulation of the new world, and slavery even more barbarous than that of ancient times.

On the other hand, great strides were made in the sciences and arts. Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler transformed our understanding of the heavens, while “the arts of epic poetry, painting and sculpture, arrived at a perfection unknown to the ancients.” There was an understanding that, while “it was still necessary to examine what had been done by the ancients,” people “were entitled to judge them” and apply their own reason.

The end of the epoch was marked by the genius of “three extraordinary personages,” Bacon, Galileo and Descartes, each of whom made a unique contribution that helped lay the foundations for the scientific revolution. Bacon set out a method based on observation, experiment and calculation and argued that the philosopher should “renounce every creed he had received” and rely on his own judgement. Galileo, as well as making a number of brilliant discoveries, “founded the first school in which the sciences have been taught without a mixture of superstition, prejudice, or authority.” Descartes made a significant contribution to the study of optics, developed a new branch of mathematics and, most importantly, had the boldness to attempt “to extend his method to every object of human intelligence.”

Ninth Epoch. From the Time of Descartes, to the Formation of the French Republic

This is the epoch, according to Condorcet, when humanity “completed its emancipation.” At its opening some countries had developed limited freedoms, but despotism was still rife and religious intolerance fierce. However, philosophy was gaining

Thinkers finally

They recognised that maintaining those rights “was the only object of political union,” and that “the will of the majority is the only principle which can be followed by all, without infringing upon the common equality.” Thus the individual engages to comply with the will of the majority, which in turn makes that engagement unanimity.

There follows a discussion of many the breakthroughs made in the period, beginning with the thought of Locke and Leibniz, and paying tribute to those who disseminated truth as well as those who discovered it, including Collins, Bolingbroke, Bayle, Fontanelle and Montesquieu.

A major outcome of these changes was the American declaration of independence from Britain. This was the first example “of a great people throwing off at once every species of chains, and peaceably framing for itself the form of government and the laws that it judged would be most conducive to its happiness.” War ensued and the Americans successfully freed themselves of the domination of Britain.

The French Revolution followed quickly in its wake. The French had much more to change than the Americans as they suffered a corrupt system of finance, feudal tyranny, hereditary distinction, privilege of corporations and a system of religious intolerance to destroy. Thus they attempted to overthrow at one blow “the despotism of kings, the political inequality of constitutions partially free, the pride and prerogatives of nobility, the domination, intolerance, and rapacity of priests, and the enormity of feudal claims.” What made this task harder still was the lack of allies the revolution found in other states of Europe since such radical change posed a threat to all of France’s neighbours. However, consequence of the immensity of their challenge is that the constitution and laws that came out of the revolution were “more pure, accurate and profound” than those of the Americans.

Condorcet moves on to consider the breakthroughs made in the natural sciences, discussing Newton and d’Alembert and explaining how their approach delivered natural philosophy “from the vague explanations of Descartes” making it “nothing more than the art of interrogating nature by experiment, for the purpose of afterwards deducing more general facts by computation.” In this period, chemistry, as it turned away from the chimera of turning base metals into gold, became truly experimental, while natural history, gaining from advances made in other sciences began to exhibit true rigour in its methods of study. Anatomy, while gaining greatly from the collapse of the “superstitious respect for the dead” of previous epochs, failed to advance as much as other subjects, primarily because “the nature of its object deprives it of” the means to experiment open to the other sciences. The mechanical arts, architecture and economics also “advanced with greater certainty” thanks to advances made in the sciences.

Notable in Condorcet’s description is the recognition of the interdependence of the sciences. However, what he considers perhaps the most important consequence of the increase in scientific knowledge is “that prejudice has been destroyed, and the human understanding somewhat rectified” after the absurdity of belief, terror and superstition imposed on it by religion. For him the spread and popularisation of scientific understanding will ultimately serve to improve politics, morality and the arts. His is an optimistic view:

However, Condorcet acknowledges the severe limitations to the spread of information in the world at the time of his writing. There were still “vast countries groaning under slavery” and others “still vegetating in the infancy of” the early age of humanity’s progress. Thus, while the human mind had progressed greatly, little had been done for “the perfection of the human species; much for the glory of man, somewhat for his liberty, but scarcely anything yet for his happiness. In a few directions, our eyes are struck with dazzling light; but thick darkness still covers and immense horizon.” These thoughts bring Condorcet to the “last link of the chain, that the observation of past events … become truly useful” in deciding the future destiny of humanity.

Tenth Epoch. Future Progress of Mankind

Here Condorcet presents his view of what he hopes the future will hold. He begins by reducing them to three points: “the destruction of inequality between nations; the progress of equality in one and the same nation; and, lastly, the real improvement of man.” He asks:

Condorcet’s answer to these questions is clear; that history of progress to date suggests that “nature has fixed no limits to our hopes.” He is convinced that the European nations will soon be transformed from oppressors and conquerors of Africa and Asia to “instruments of benefit, and the generous champions of their redemption from bondage.” What is more, the road to progress in the undeveloped nations will be much faster and surer as they will benefit from “the simple truths and infallible methods” that have already been found in the West.

Noting that “there is frequently a considerable distinction between the rights which the law acknowledges in the citizens of a state and those which they really enjoy” due to inequalities in wealth, access to resources and education, Condorcet argues that “these three kinds of real inequality must continually diminish; but without becoming absolutely extinct.”

Certain that there is no limit to “the absolute perfection of the human species,” Condorcet makes the case for the improvements necessary to move towards that perfect state. First he argues for universal education as a means to reducing all types of inequality. Not only would this make it harder for a minority to deceive the majority, as has happened in the past, but would also ensure that progress of both the sciences and the arts accelerated indefinitely. For him it is obvious that the sciences are in their infancy and thus it is impossible to attempt to set limits to any area of human endeavour. In one striking prediction he seems to foretell the green and industrial revolutions:

Addressing the question of whether population will grow too large he asks:

In a similar vein, with regard to the political and moral sciences, he asks:

He proposes that the application of the arithmetic of combinations and probabilities to morality and politics may one day afford some answers to this question. Further, he suggests that the refinement of language, providing ever improving accuracy in the comprehension of ideas, could contribute to the indefinite improvement of the moral and political realms. He argues that “total annihilation of the prejudices which have established between the sexes an inequality of rights” would be one of the most important improvements that could be made. He also maintains that, as people become more enlightened, they

Two other factors have their part to play in Condorcet’s vision. He describes the first as “technical methods,” by which he means arranging and systematizing objects in order to “perceive at a glance their bearings and connections, seize in an instant their combinations, and form from them the more readily new combinations.” The second is the introduction of a universal language for use in the sciences which would facilitate precision of description and thus mutual understanding. He adds that the main obstacle to achieving this “would be the humiliating necessity of acknowledging how few precise ideas, and accurately defined notions, understood exactly in the same sense in every mind, we really possess.”

Finally, Condorcet discusses human life expectancy, which he predicts will increase indefinitely, and that the “middle term of life” will be characterised by more constant health and a more robust constitution. This will be brought about in part by medical advance, but more importantly by the ending of “penury and wretchedness on the one hand, and of enormous wealth on the other.”

Notes written by Caspar J M Hewett for
Progress of the Human Mind: From Enlightenment to Postmodernism
A workshop held in September 2008 as part of The Great Debate Tenth Anniversary

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