A member of the radical enlightenment in France, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet (b. Ribemont dans l’Aisne, September 17,1743) believed humanity capable of infinite progress and sought to inject reason into social affairs. Ironically, Condorcet was declared, on March 13, 1794, hors la loi (and hence to be executed without trial if apprehended, along with any who aided him). He died of a hemorrhage (Bourg La Reine, March 29, 1794) within a few days of leaving his Paris refuge to protect those who had sheltered him.
Educated at the Jesuit college in Reims and the College of Navarre, where he studied mathematics, he became secretary of the Academy of Sciences in 1777 and was elected to the French Academy in 1782 and the Academy of Sciences in 1789. Condorcet published a biography of Turgot (1786) and Voltaire (1789). When Turgot became Controller General of France in 1774, he appointed Condorcet as Inspector General of the Mint (a post he held until 1791). Condorcet married Sophie de Grouchy, a renowned beauty, in 1786.
Condorcet was a prodigious reader with a superb memory who acquired from working with Turgot a firm belief in economic laissez-faire policies supplemented by state intervention in cases where the market was not developed enough. He knew many of the prominent intellectuals of the age and advocated religious toleration, legal and educational reform, and the abolition of slavery, but his poor rhetorical skills hurt his causes and made him enemies. Condorcet had a major role in writing the first (Girondin) moderate constitution for revolutionary France, but this prejudiced his case when Robespierre and the Jacobins took over.
Condorcet’s inveterate optimism showed most explicitly in his last great work, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Sketch of an Historical Canvas of the Progress of the Human Spirit), written while in hiding and largely without a library (1795). Like others, Condorcet imagines humanity progressing from a state of savagery up through a number of stages of civilization. His theme influenced many, including Hegel, but Condorcet’s originality lay in his description of a final tenth stage, in which inequality between nations and individuals will disappear and human nature will be perfected intellectually, morally, and physically.
Condorcet’s most original contribution may in the end have been in mathematics. He wrote several treatises on calculus (1765, 1772, and a manuscript just before his death) but he gained fame in 1785 with his Essai sur l’application de l’analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix (An Essay on the Application of Probability Theory to Majority Decisions), which radically clarified the mathematics of voting. He was one of the first to point out that preferences of pluralities are not transitive (a plurality may prefer A to B, B to C, and C to A). He developed what has been called a “Condorcet criterion” for winning, in which the result satisfies the criterion that the majority would prefer the winner to any other single candidate. Condorcet demonstrated the mathematical advantages of what has come to be known as a ranked-pairs method of determining a winner from binary preferences (for example, 9 of 11 prefer A to B), by progressively accepting preferences from greatest plurality to least if and only if they do not entail an inconsistency with those preferences already accepted.
- Condorcet, Marquis de (1979). Sketch for a historical picture of the progress of the human mind (J. Barraclough, Trans.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. (Original work published 1794)