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Marquis de Condorcet

Updated on February 26, 2012

Marquis de Condorcet was a French mathematician and philosopher, who was one of the outstanding figures of the Enlightenment. A liberal and a humanitarian, he took an active part in the French Revolution. His writings on the progress of man deeply influenced the political and social thought of the 19th century.

The Enlightenment

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, was born into a noble family in Ribemont, Picardy, on September 17, 1743. Educated by the Jesuits and at the College de Navarre in Paris, he became an able and precocious mathematician. He published his first essay on the integral calculus in 1765 and was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1769, at the age of 26. As assistant after 1771 to its permanent secretary, Grandjean de Fouchy, and later as his successor, Condorcet wrote a series of well-received Eloges on its deceased members.

He married the beautiful Sophie de Grouchy (sister of the Marquis de Grouchy) in 1786; subsequently their popular salon attracted especially the young philosophes.

But it is as an exponent of Turgot's economics and Voltaire's humanitarianism that Condorcet is best known. As a physiocrat he wrote numerous pamphlets advocating free trade and the elimination of the corvee, a form of compulsory labor that greatly harassed the French peasant. His humanitarianism found a ready outlet in his campaign to abolish slavery, his opposition to capital punishment, and his pacifist analysis of war. His constitutionalism was reflected in his advocacy of free speech and in his vigorous support of the American Revolution, on which he wrote De l'influence de la Revolution d'Amerique sur l'Europe (1786) and Lettms d'un bourgeois de Newhaven Ii un citoyen de Virginie (1787).

The Revolution

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Condorcet was probably the most prominent of the philosophes still alive. He served in the Legislative Assembly as a member for Paris from October 1791 to September 1792, having previously startled public opinion with his Sur l'admission des femmes au droit de Cite (1790), in which he had advocated the enfranchisement of women. In April 1792 his report to the Assembly on proposed reforms in education, Sur l'instruction publique, envisaged a nation al system of public education designed to develop the natural talents of all, thus making' real equality possible.

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