Marquis de Condorcet

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Nicolas de Condorcet
Nicolas de Condorcet.PNG
Marquis de Condorcet
Born (1743-09-17)17 September 1743
Ribemont, France
Died 28 March 1794(1794-03-28) (aged 50)
Bourg-la-Reine, France
Occupation Philosopher, mathematician, and political scientist
Spouse(s) Sophie de Condorcet

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (French: [maʁi ʒɑ̃n‿ɑ̃twan nikola də kaʁita kɔ̃dɔʁsɛ]; 17 September 1743 – 28 March 1794), known as Nicolas de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist whose Condorcet method in voting tally selects the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races. His ideas and writings were said to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and rationalism, and remain influential to this day. He died a mysterious death in prison after a period of flight from French Revolutionary authorities.

Early years[edit]

Condorcet was born in Ribemont (in present-day Aisne), and descended from the ancient family of Caritat, who took their title from the town of Condorcet in Dauphiné, of which they were long-time residents. Fatherless at a young age, he was raised by his devoutly religious mother. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Reims and at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, where he quickly showed his intellectual ability, and gained his first public distinctions in mathematics. When he was sixteen, his analytical abilities gained the praise of Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Alexis Clairaut; soon, Condorcet would study under d'Alembert.

From 1765 to 1774, he focused on science. In 1765, he published his first work on mathematics entitled Essai sur le calcul intégral, which was well received, launching his career as a mathematician. He would go on to publish more papers, and on 25 February 1769, he was elected to the Académie royale des Sciences (French Royal Academy of Sciences).[1]

Jacques Turgot was Condorcet's mentor and longtime friend

In 1772, he published another paper on integral calculus. Soon after, he met Jacques Turgot, a French economist, and the two became friends. Turgot was to be an administrator under King Louis XV in 1772, and became Controller-General of Finance under Louis XVI in 1774.

Condorcet worked with Leonhard Euler and Benjamin Franklin. He soon became an honorary member of many foreign academies and philosophic societies including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (1785), Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1792),[2] and also in Prussia and Russia .

His political ideas, however, many of them in continuity with Turgot's, were criticized heavily in the English-speaking world, most notably by John Adams, who wrote two of his principal works of political philosophy to oppose Turgot and Condorcet's unicameral legislature and radical democracy.[3]

Early political career[edit]

In 1774, Condorcet was appointed inspector general of the Paris mint by Turgot.[4] From this point on, Condorcet shifted his focus from the purely mathematical to philosophy and political matters. In the following years, he took up the defense of human rights in general, and of women's and Blacks' rights in particular (an abolitionist, he became active in the Society of the Friends of the Blacks in the 1780s). He supported the ideals embodied by the newly formed United States, and proposed projects of political, administrative and economic reforms intended to transform France.

In 1776, Turgot was dismissed as Controller General. Consequently, Condorcet submitted his resignation as Inspector General of the Monnaie, but the request was refused, and he continued serving in this post until 1791. Condorcet later wrote Vie de M. Turgot (1786), a biography which spoke fondly of Turgot and advocated Turgot's economic theories. Condorcet continued to receive prestigious appointments: in 1777, he became Permanent Secretary of the Académie des Sciences, holding the post until the abolition of the Académie in 1793, and in 1782 secretary of the Académie française.[5]

Condorcet's paradox and the Condorcet method[edit]

Main article: Condorcet method

In 1785, Condorcet wrote an essay on the application of analysis of the probability of decisions made on a majority vote, one of his most important works. This work described several now famous results, including Condorcet's jury theorem, which states that if each member of a voting group is more likely than not to make a correct decision, the probability that the highest vote of the group is the correct decision increases as the number of members of the group increases, and Condorcet's paradox, which shows that majority preferences can become intransitive with three or more options – it is possible for a certain electorate to express a preference for A over B, a preference for B over C, and a preference for C over A, all from the same set of ballots.[6]

The paper also outlines a generic Condorcet method, designed to simulate pair-wise elections between all candidates in an election. He disagreed strongly with the alternative method of aggregating preferences put forth by Jean-Charles de Borda (based on summed rankings of alternatives). Condorcet was one of the first to systematically apply mathematics in the social sciences.

Other works[edit]

In 1786, Condorcet worked on ideas for the differential and integral calculus, giving a new treatment of infinitesimals – a work which was never printed. In 1789, he published Vie de Voltaire (1789), which agreed with Voltaire in his opposition to the Church. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population partly in response to Condorcet's views on the "perfectibility of society" as outlined in the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In 1781, Condorcet wrote a pamphlet, Reflections on Negro Slavery, in which he denounced slavery.[7]

French Revolution[edit]


Condorcet took a leading role when the French Revolution swept France in 1789, hoping for a rationalist reconstruction of society, and championed many liberal causes. As a result, in 1791 he was elected as a Paris representative in the Assemblée, and then became the secretary of the Assembly.

In April 1792 Condorcet presented a project for the reformation of the education system, aiming to create a hierarchical system, under the authority of experts, who would work as the guardians of the Enlightenment and who, independent of power, would be the guarantors of public liberties. The project was judged to be contrary to the republican and egalitarian virtues, giving the education of the Nation over to an aristocracy of savants. The institution adopted Condorcet's design for the state education system, and he drafted a proposed Bourbon Constitution for the new France. He advocated women's suffrage for the new government, writing an article for Journal de la Société de 1789, and by publishing De l'admission des femmes au droit de cité ("For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship For Women") in 1790.[8]

There were three competing views on which direction France should go, embodied by three political parties: the moderate royalists or Feuillants, republican Girondins, and the more radical Montagnards, led by Maximilien Robespierre. The Feuillants wished to keep the constitutional monarchy as it was developed by the Assemblée, the latter two favored purging France of its royal past (Ancien Régime), each in their own way. Condorcet was quite independent, but still counted many friends in the Girondin party. He presided over the Assembly as the Girondins held the majority, until it was replaced by the National Convention, elected in order to design a new constitution. He led the Constitution Committee which drafted the Girondin constitutional project. The constitution was ordered to be printed, but was not put to a vote. When the Montagnards gained control of the Convention, they wrote their own, the French Constitution of 1793.[9]

At the time of the Trial of Louis XVI, the Girondins had, however, lost their majority in the Convention. Condorcet, who opposed the death penalty but still supported the trial itself, spoke out against the execution of the King during the public vote at the Convention – he proposed to send the king to the galleys. From that moment on, he was usually considered a Girondin. The Montagnards were becoming more and more influential in the Convention as the King's "betrayal" was confirming their theories. One of them, Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles, a member, like Condorcet, of the Constitution's Commission, misrepresented many ideas from Condorcet's draft and presented what was called a Montagnard Constitution. Condorcet criticized the new work, and as a result, he was branded a traitor. On 3 October 1793, a warrant was issued for Condorcet's arrest.[10]

Arrest and death[edit]

Condorcet was symbolically interred in the Panthéon (pictured) in 1989.

The warrant forced Condorcet into hiding. He hid for five (or eight) months in the house of Mme. Vernet, on Rue Servandoni, in Paris. It was there that he wrote Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit), which was published posthumously in 1795 and is considered one of the major texts of the Enlightenment and of historical thought. It narrates the history of civilization as one of progress in the sciences, shows the intimate connection between scientific progress and the development of human rights and justice, and outlines the features of a future rational society entirely shaped by scientific knowledge.[11]

On 25 March 1794 Condorcet, convinced he was no longer safe, left his hideout and attempted to flee Paris. Two days later he was arrested in Clamart and imprisoned in Bourg-la-Reine (or, as it was known during the Revolution, Bourg-l'Égalité, "Equality Borough" rather than "Queen's Borough"). Two days after that, he was found dead in his cell. The most widely accepted theory is that his friend, Pierre Jean George Cabanis, gave him a poison which he eventually used. However, some historians believe that he may have been murdered (perhaps because he was too loved and respected to be executed). Jean-Pierre Brancourt (in his work L'élite, la mort et la révolution) claims that Condorcet was killed with a mixture of Datura stramonium and opium.

Condorcet was symbolically interred in the Panthéon in 1989, in honor of the bicentennial of the French Revolution and Condorcet's role as a central figure in the Enlightenment. However his coffin was empty. Interred in the common cemetery of Bourg-la-Reine, his remains were lost during the nineteenth century.


In 1786 Condorcet married Sophie de Grouchy, who was more than twenty years his junior. His wife, reckoned one of the most beautiful women of the day, became an accomplished salon hostess as Madame de Condorcet, and also an accomplished translator of Thomas Paine and Adam Smith. She was intelligent and well-educated, fluent in both English and Italian. The marriage was a strong one, and Sophie visited her husband regularly while he remained in hiding. Although she began proceedings for divorce in January 1794, it was at the insistence of Condorcet and Cabanis, who wished to protect their property from expropriation and to provide financially for Sophie and their young daughter, Louise 'Eliza' Alexandrine.

Condorcet was survived by his widow and their four-year-old daughter Eliza. Sophie died in 1822, never having remarried, and having published all her husband's works between 1801 and 1804. Her work was carried on by their daughter Eliza Condorcet-O'Connor, wife of former United Irishman Arthur O'Connor. The Condorcet-O'Connors brought out a revised edition between 1847 and 1849.

The Idea of Progress[edit]

Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795) was perhaps the most influential formulation of the idea of progress ever written. It made the Idea of Progress a central concern of Enlightenment thought. He argued that expanding knowledge in the natural and social sciences would lead to an ever more just world of individual freedom, material affluence, and moral compassion. He argued for three general propositions: that the past revealed an order that could be understood in terms of the progressive development of human capabilities, showing that humanity's "present state, and those through which it has passed, are a necessary constitution of the moral composition of humankind"; that the progress of the natural sciences must be followed by progress in the moral and political sciences "no less certain, no less secure from political revolutions"; that social evils are the result of ignorance and error rather than an inevitable consequence of human nature.[12]

Condorcet's writings were a key contribution to the French Enlightenment, particularly his work on the Idea of Progress. Condorcet believed that through the use of our senses and communication with others, knowledge could be compared and contrasted as a way of analyzing our systems of belief and understanding. None of Condorcet's writings refer to a belief in a religion or a god who intervenes in human affairs. Condorcet instead frequently had written of his faith in humanity itself and its ability to progress with the help of philosophers such as Aristotle. Through this accumulation and sharing of knowledge he believed it was possible for any man to comprehend all the known facts of the natural world. The enlightenment of the natural world spurred the desire for enlightenment of the social and political world. Condorcet believed that there was no definition of the perfect human existence and thus believed that the progression of the human race would inevitably continue throughout the course of our existence. He envisioned man as continually progressing toward a perfectly utopian society. However, he stressed that for this to be a possibility man must unify regardless of race, religion, culture or gender.[13]

Civic duty[edit]

For Condorcet's republicanism the nation needed enlightened citizens and education needed democracy to become truly public. Democracy implied free citizens, and ignorance was the source of servitude. Citizens had to be provided with the necessary knowledge to exercise their freedom and understand the rights and laws that guaranteed their enjoyment. Although education could not eliminate disparities in talent, all citizens, including women, had the right to free education. In opposition to those who relied on revolutionary enthusiasm to form the new citizens, Condorcet maintained that revolution was not made to last and that revolutionary institutions were not intended to prolong the revolutionary experience but to establish political rules and legal mechanisms that would insure future changes without revolution. In a democratic city there would be no Bastille to be seized. Public education would form free and responsible citizens, not revolutionaries.[14]


Rothschild (2001) argues that Condorcet has been seen since the 1790s as the embodiment of the cold, rational Enlightenment. However she suggests his writings on economic policy, voting, and public instruction indicate different views both of Condorcet and of the Enlightenment. Condorcet was concerned with individual diversity; he was opposed to proto-utilitarian theories; he considered individual independence, which he described as the characteristic liberty of the moderns, to be of central political importance; and he opposed the imposition of universal and eternal principles. His efforts to reconcile the universality of some values with the diversity of individual opinions are of continuing interest. He emphasizes the institutions of civilized or constitutional conflict, recognizes conflicts or inconsistencies within individuals, and sees moral sentiments as the foundation of universal values. His difficulties call into question some familiar distinctions, for example between French, German, and English-Scottish thought, and between the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment. There was substantial continuity between Condorcet's criticism of the economic ideas of the 1760s and the liberal thought of the early 19th century.[13]

The Lycée Condorcet in the rue du Havre, in the 9th arrondissement of Paris is named in his honour, as are streets in many French cities.


  • Condorcet: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) edited by Steven Lukes, and Nadia Urbinati (2012)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ellen Judy Wilson; Peter Hanns Reill (2004). Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. Infobase Publishing. pp. 124–25. 
  2. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter C" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 28 July 2014. 
  3. ^ David Waldstreicher (2013). A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Wiley. p. 64. 
  4. ^ Mary Efrosini Gregory (2010). Freedom in French Enlightenment Thought. Peter Lang. p. 148. 
  5. ^ Lorraine Daston (1995). Classical Probability in the Enlightenment. Princeton UP. p. 104. 
  6. ^ Douglas J. Amy (2000). Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 188. 
  7. ^ Bierstedt, Robert (1978). "Sociological Thought in the Eighteenth Century". In Bottomore, Tom; Nisbet, Robert. A History of Sociological Analysis. Basic Books. p. 19. ISBN 0-465-03023-8. 
  8. ^ Robert William Dimand; Chris Nyland (2003). The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought. Edward Elgar. p. 133. 
  9. ^ Quentin Skinner; Bo Stråth (2003). States and Citizens: History, Theory, Prospects. Cambridge UP. p. 138. 
  10. ^ William E. Burns (2003). Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 63. 
  11. ^ Peter Loptson (1998). Readings on Human Nature. Broadview Press. pp. 125–28. 
  12. ^ Baker, Keith Michael (Summer 2004). "On Condorcet's 'Sketch'". Daedalus. 133 (3): 56–64. doi:10.1162/0011526041504506. 
  13. ^ a b Williams, David (2004). Condorcet and Modernity. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-84139-9. 
  14. ^ Baker, Keith Michael (1975). Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-03532-8. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Baker, Keith. Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics (1982)
  • Cosimo Scarcella, Condorçet. Dottrine politiche e sociali, Lecce, Milella Editore 1980, p. 312.
  • Furet, François and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989), pp. 204–12
  • Hart, David (2008). "Condorcet, Marquis de (1743–1794)". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 87–88. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n57. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Manuel, Frank Edward. The Prophets of Paris (1962)
  • Mount, Ferdinand. The Condor's Head (2007)
  • Rothschild, Emma. Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (2001)
  • Schapiro, Jacob Salwyn. Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism (1962)
  • Williams, David. Condorcet and Modernity (Cambridge University Press. 2004)

External links[edit]