Condorcet, John Antony Nicolas Caritat Mapquis De

, an eminent French philosopher and mathematician, was born at Ribemont in Pirardy, three leagues from Saint-Quintin and De la Fere, September 17, 1743, of a very ancient family. At the age of fifteen he was sent to study philosophy at the college of Navarre, under Giraud de Keroudon, who has since distinguished himself by several scientific works, and was an able teacher of mathematics. During the first year of his residence there, young Condorcet exhibited but little relish for the metaphysical questions relative to the nature of ideas, of sensations, and of memory, but in the course of the following year, mathematics and natural philosophy decided his future vocation; and although he had more than one hundred and twenty fellow-students, he acquired a greater portion of fame than any of them. At Easter he supported a public | thesis, at which Clairaut, D’Alembert, and Fontaine, the first geometricians of France, assisted; and his conduct on this occasion obtained their approbation. After his course of philosophy was finished, he returned to his family, but still continued to cultjrate geometry; and his attachment to it carried him back to Paris in 1762, where he lived with his old professor, in order to have more frequent opportunities of indulging his ruling passion. He at the same time attended the chemical lectures of Macquer and Beaume, and soon distinguished himself among the geometricians.

In 1765 he published his first work “Sur le Calcul Integrel,” in which he proposed to exhibit a general method of determining the finite integral of a given differential equation, either for differences infinitely small, or finite differences. D’Alembert and Bezout, the commissioners of the academy, employed to examine the merits of this performance, bestowed high praises on it as a work of invention, and a presage of talents worthy of encouragement. In 1767 he published a second work, the problem of three bodies, “Probleme des Trois corps,” in which he presented the nine differential equations of the movement of the bodies of a given system, supposing that each of these bodies should be propelled by a certain force, and that a mutual attraction subsisted among them. He also treated of the movement of three bodies of a given figure, the particles of which attracted each other in the inverse ratio of the square of the distance. In addition to this, he explained a new method of integers, by approximation, with the assistance of infinite series; and added to the methods exhibited in his first work, that which M. de la Grange had convinced him was still wanting. Thus Condorcet, says his eulogist La Lande, was already numbered with the foremost mathematicians in Europe. “There was not,” he adds, “above ten of that class; one at Petersburgh, one at Berlin, one at Basle, one at Milan, and five or six at Paris; England, which had set such an illustrious example, no longer produced a single geometer that could rank with the former.” It is mortifying to us to confess that this remark is but too much founded on truth. Yet, says a late writer of the life of Condorcet, we doubt not but there are in Great Britain at present mathematicians equal in profundity and address to any who have existed since tho illustrious Newton but these men are not known | to the learned of Europe, because they keep their science to themselves. They have no encouragement from the taste of the nation, to publish any thing in those higher departments of geometry which have so long occupied the attention of the mathematicians on the continent.*


Gleig’s Suppl. to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 1768, under the title of the first part of his “Essais d’Analyse,” he published a letter to D’Alembert, in which he resumed the subjects treated of in his two former works, and endeavoured, by means of new exhibitions, to extend his methods of integral calculation, in the three hypotheses of evanescent differences, finite differences, and partial differences. He there also gave the application of infinite or indefinite series to the integration; the methods of approximation, and the use of all the methods for the dynamic problems, especially the problem of three bodies: these modes might have become an useful help, that would have led to important discoveries, but he only pointed out the road necessary to be followed, without pursuing it,

He was received into the French academy on the 8th of March, 1769, and in the course of the same year he published a memoir on the nature of infinite series, on the extent of solutions afforded by this mode, and on a new method of approximation for the differential equations of all the orders. In the volumes of 1770, and the following years, he presented the fruits of his researches on the equations with partial and finite differences; and in 1772 he published “L‘Essai d’une methode pour distinguer les Equations differentielles possibles en termes finis de celies qui ne le sont pas,” an essay on a method to distinguish possible differential equations in finite terms, from those which are not so. The mode of calculation here presented, although an admirable instrument, is still very far distant from that degree of perfection to which it may be brought. In the midst of these studies, he published an anonymous pamphlet, entitled “A Letter to a Theologian,” in which he replied with keen satire to the attacks madfc by the author of “The Three Centuries of Literature,” against the philosophic sect. “But (subjoins the prudent La Lande) he pushed the matter somewhat too far, for, even, supposing his system demonstrated, it would be advantageous to confine those truths within the circle of the | iniliated, because they are dangerous, in respect to the greater part of mankind, who are unable to replace, by means of principles, that which they are bereaved of in the shape of fear, consolation, and hope.” Condorcet was now in fact leagued with the atheists; and La Lande, who wished well to the same sect, here censures not his principles, but only regrets his rashness. In 1773 he was appointed secretary to the academy of sciences, when he composed eulogies upon several deceased members who had been neglected by Fontenelle; and in 1782 he was received into the French academy, on which occasion he delivered a discourse concerning the influence of philosophy. In the following year he succeeded D’Alembert as secretary to that academy, and pronounced an able eulogy to the memory of his deceased friend, whose literary and scientific merits are set forth with great ability. The death of Euler afforded Condorcet another opportunity of displaying his own talents by appreciating those of the departed mathematician. The lives of Turgot and Voltaire, and the eulogy pronounced upon the death of the celebrated Franklin, were decided testimonies to the abilities of Condorcet as a biographical writer. Turgot had occupied much of his time and attention with moral and political sciences, and was particularly anxious that the certainty of which different species of knowledge are susceptible, might be demonstrated by the assistance of calculation, hoping that the human species would necessarily make a progress towards happiness and perfection, in the same manner as it had done towards the attainment of truth. To second these views of Turgot, Condorcet undertook a work replete with geometrical knowledge. He examined the probability of an assembly’s rendering a true decision, and he explained the limits to which our knowledge of future events, regulated by the laws of nature, considered as the most certain and uniform, might extend. If we do not possess a real, yet he thought, we ha\ 7 e at least a mean probability, that the law indicated by events, is the same constant law, and that it will be perpetually observed. He considered a forty-five thousandth part as the value of the risk, in the case when the consideration of a new law comes in question and it appears from his calculation, that an assembly consisting of 6 1 votes, in which it is required that there should be a plurality of nine, will fulfil this condition, provided there is a probability of each vote being | equal to four-fifths, that is, that each member voting shall be deceived only once in five times. He applied these calculations to the creation of tribunals, to the forms of elections, and to the decisions of numerous assemblies; inconveniences attendant on which were exhibited by him. This work, says his eulogist, furnished a grand, and at the same time, an agreeable proof of the utility of analysis in important matters to which it had never before been applied, and to which we may venture to assert it never will be applied while human reason is allowed any share in human transactions. There are many of these paradoxes in geometry, which, we are told, it is impossible to resolve without being possessed of metaphysical attainments, and a degree of sagacity not always possessed by the greatest geometricians; but where such attainments and sagacity are to be found, even Condorcet himself has not exemplified. In his “Euler’s Letters,” published in 1787-89, he started the idea of a dictionary, in which objects are to be discovered by their qualities or properties, instead of being searched for under their respective names; he also intimated a scheme for constructing tables by which ten milHards of objects might be classed together, by means of only ten different modifications.

In October 1791 he sat as a member of the national assembly, and for the last time in the academy on Nov. 25, 1792, after which it was suppressed by the barbarians who then were in power. Of their conduct, however, Condorcet, who had contributed to place them there, could not complain with a good grace. In the mean time the members of the academy considered it as allowable to assemble, but terror soon dispersed them, and that dispersion continued during nearly two years. At length Daunou delivered in his report relative to the National Institute, which was read to the convention in the name of the commission of eleven, and the committee of public safety. The consequence was, that the restoration of the academies was decreed, under the title of a National Institute, the first class of which contained the whole of the academy of sciences. This assembly was installed soon after, and Condorcet furnished the plan.

The political labours of Condorcet entirely occupied the last years of his existence. Among them were, his work, “Sur les assemblies provinciales,” and his “Reflexions sur le commerce des bk-s,” two of the most harmless. | In 1788, Roucher undertook to give a new translation of an excellent English work by Smith, entitled “The Wealth of Nations,” with notes by Condorcet, who, however, had but little concern with it, and on this and other occasions he was not unwilling to sell his name to the booksellers to give a reputation to works with which he had no concern. Chapelier and Peissonel announced a periodical collection, entitled “Bibliotheque de I’liomme Public, &c.” (The statesman’s library, or the analysis of the best political works.) This indeed was one way of enabling the deputies of the assembly to learn what it was important for them, to become acquainted with; it was supposed that the name of Condorcet might be useful on this occasion also, and it was accordingly made use of. The work itself contained one of his compositions which had been transmitted to the academy at Berlin. The subject discussed was, “Est il permis de tromper le peuple r” (Ought the people to be deceived?) This question, we presume, must have always been decided in the affirmative by such politicians as Condorcet, since what amounts to the same effect) almost all his writings tended to pave the way for a revolution in which the people were completely deceived. He was afterwards a member of the popular clubs at Paris, particularly that of the jacobins, celebrated for democratic violence, where he was a frequent but by no means a powerful speaker. He was chosen a representative for the metropolis, when the constituent assembly was dissolved, and joined himself to the Brissotine party, which finally fell the just victims to that revolutionary spirit which they had excited. Condorcet at this period was the person selected to draw up a plan for public instruction, which he comprehended in two memoirs, and which it is acknowledged were too abstract for general use. He was the author of a Manifesto addressed from the French people to the powers of Europe, on the approach of war; and of a letter to Louis XVI. as president of the assembly, which was dictated in terms destitute of that respect and consideration to which the first magistrate of a great people has, as such, a just claim. He even attempted to justify the insults offered to the sovereign by the lowest, the most illiterate, and most brutal part of a delirious populace. On the trial of the king, his conduct was equivocal and unmanly; he had declared that he ought not to be arraigned, yet he had i^t courage to defend h\s | opinion, or justify those sentiments which he had deliberately formed in the closet.

After the death of Louis, Condorcet undertook to frame a new constitution, which was approved by the convention, but which did not meet the wishes and expectations of the nation. A new party, calling themselves the Mountain, were now gaining an ascendancy in the convention over Brissot and his friends. At first the contest was severe; the debates, if tumult and discord may be so denominated, ran high, and the utmost acrimony was exercised on all sides. Condorcet, always timid, always anxious to avoid danger, retired as much as possible from the scene. By this act of prudence he at first escaped the destruction which overwhelmed the party; but having written against the bloody acts of the mountain, and of the monster Robespierre, a decree was readily obtained against him. He was arrested in July 1793, but contrived to escape from the vigilance of the officers under whose care he was placed. For nine months he lay concealed at Paris, when, dreading the consequences of a domiciliary visit, he fled to the house of a friend on the plain of Mont-Rouge, who was at the time in Paris. Condorcet was obliged to pass eight-and-forty hours in the fields, exposed to all the wretchedness of cold, hunger, and the dread of his enemies. On the third day he obtained an interview with his friend; he, however, was too much alive to the sense of danger to admit Condorcet into his habitation, who was again obliged to seek the safety which unfrequented fields and pathless woods could afford. Wearied at length with fatigue and want of food, on March 26 he entered a little inn and demanded some eggs. His long beard and disordered clothes, having rendered him suspected by a member of the revolutionary committee of Clamar, who demanded his passport, he was obliged to repair to the committee of the district of Bourg-la-Reine. Arriving too late to be examined that night, he was confined in the prison, by the name of Peter Simon, until he could be conveyed to Paris. He was found dead next day, March 28, 1794. On inspecting the body, the immediate cause of his death could not be discovered, but it was conjectured that he had poisoned himself. Condorcet indeed always carried a dose of poison in his pocket, and he said to the friend who was to have received him into his house, that he had been often tempted to make use of it, but that the idea of a wife | and daughter, whom he loved tenderly, restrained him. During the time that he was concealed at Paris, he wrote a history of the “Progress of the Human Mind,” in two volumes, of which it is necessary only to add, that among other wonderful things, the author gravely asserts the possibility, if not the probability, that the nature of man may be improved to absolute perfection in body and mind, and his existence in this world protracted to immortality, a doctrine, if it deserves the name, which, having been afterwards transfused into an English publication, has been treated with merited ridicule and contempt.

Condorcet’s private character is described by La Lande, as easy, quiet, kind, and obliging, but neither his conversation nor his external deportment bespoke the fire of his genius. D’Alembert used to compare him to a volcano covered with snow. His public character may be estimated by what has been related. Nothing was more striking in him than the dislike, approaching to implacable hatred, which he entertained against the Christian religion; his philosophical works, if we do not consider them as the reveries of a sophist, have for their direct tendency a contempt for the order Providence has established in the world. But as a philosopher, it is not very probable that Condorcet will hereafter be known, while his discoveries and improvements in geometrical studies will ever be noticed to his honour. If he was not superior to his contemporaries, he excelled them all in the early display of talent; and it would have been happy for him ancl his country, had he been only a geometrician. 1


Eloge by La Lande. Condorcet’s Works were published in 21 vols. 8vo, In Paris, 18U4, exclusive of his mathematical writings.