September 17

1743 Birth of the Marquis de Condorcet 

A rather flamboyant account by a nineteenth-century English writer of the fall of Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet, French philosopher and mathematician:

Condorcet was born in Picardy in 1743. Early in life he distinguished himself as a mathematician, and his labours in the development of the differential and integral calculus, will preserve his name in the history of science. Associating with Voltaire, Helvetius, and D’Alembert, he became a sharer in their opinions, and a social reformer with an almost fanatical abhorrence of the present and the past, and with an invincible assurance in a glorious destiny for humanity in the future. The outbreak of the revolution was to him as the dawn of this new era when old wrongs should pass away and justice and goodness should rule the world. He wrote for the revolutionary newspapers, and was an indefatigable member of the Jacobin club, but he was less effective with his tongue than his pen. A cold and impassive exterior, a stoical Roman countenance, imperfectly expressed the fiery energy of his heart, and caused D’Alembert to describe him as ‘a volcano covered with snow.’

When the rough and bloody business of the revolution came on, he was unable, either from timidity or gentle breeding, to hold his own against the desperadoes who rose uppermost. During the violent struggle between the Girondist and Mountain party, he took a decided part with neither, provoking Madame Roland to write of him, ‘the genius of Condorcet is equal to the comprehension of the greatest truths, but he has no other characteristic besides fear. It may be said of his understanding combined with his person, that he is a fine spirit absorbed in cotton. Thus, after having deduced a principle or demonstrated a fact in the Assembly, he would give a vote decidedly opposite, overawed by the thunder of the tribunes, armed with insults and lavish of menaces. Such men should be employed to write, but never permitted to act.’ This mingling of courage with gentleness and irresolution caused him, says Carlyle, ‘to be styled, in irreverent language, mouton enrage’—peaceablest of creatures bitten rabid.’

Robespierre, in July 1793, issued a decree of accusation against Condorcet. At the entreaty of his wife he hid himself in an attic in an obscure quarter of Paris, and there remained for eight months without once venturing abroad. He relieved the weariness of his confinement by writing a treatise on his favourite idea, The Perfectibility of the Human Race; and had he been able to endure restraint for a few months longer, he would have been saved; but he grew anxious for the safety of the good woman who risked her life in giving him shelter, and the first verdure of the trees of the Luxembourg, of which he had a glimpse from his window, brought on an over-powering desire for fresh air and exercise. He escaped into the streets, passed the barriers, and wandered among thickets and stone-quarries in the outskirts of Paris. Wounded with a fall, and half-dead with hunger and fatigue, he entered. a cabaret in the village of Clamart, and asked for an omelet. ‘How many eggs will you have in it?’ inquired the waiter. ‘A dozen,’ replied the starving philosopher, ignorant of the proper dimensions of a working man’s breakfast. The extraordinary omelet excited suspicion. Some present requested to know his trade. He said, a carpenter, but his delicate hands belied him. He was searched, and a Latin Horace and an elegant pocket-book furnished unquestionable evidence that he was a skulking aristocrat. He was forthwith arrested, and marched off to prison at Bourg-la-Reine. On the way, he fainted with exhaustion, and was set on a peasant’s horse. Flung into a damp cell, he was found dead on the floor next morning, 24th March 1794. He had saved his neck from the guillotine by a dose of poison he always carried about with him in case of such an emergency.

Condorcet’s works have been collected and published in twenty-one volumes. The Marquise de Condorcet long survived her husband. She was one of the most beautiful and accomplished women of her day, and distinguished herself by an elegant and correct translation into French of Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments.

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