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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
By John Morley (1838–1923)
From ‘Critical Miscellanies’

OF the illustrious thinkers and writers who for two generations had been actively scattering the seed of revolution in France, only Condorcet survived to behold the first bitter ingathering of the harvest. Those who had sown the wind were no more; he only was left to see the reaping of the whirlwind, and to be swiftly and cruelly swept away by it. Voltaire and Diderot, Rousseau and Helvétius, had vanished; but Condorcet both assisted at the Encyclopædia and sat in the Convention,—the one eminent man of those who had tended the tree, who also came in due season to partake of its fruit,—at once a precursor, and a sharer in the fulfillment. In neither character has he attracted the good-will of any of those considerable sections and schools into which criticism of the Revolution has been mainly divided. As a thinker he is roughly classed as an Economist; and as a practical politician he figured first in the Legislative Assembly, and next in the Convention. Now, as a rule, the political parties that have most admired the Convention have had least sympathy with the Economists; and the historians who are most favorable to Turgot and his followers are usually most hostile to the actions and associations of the great revolutionary chamber successively swayed by a Vergniaud, a Danton, a Robespierre. Between the two, Condorcet’s name has been allowed to lie hidden for the most part in a certain obscurity, or else has been covered with those taunts and innuendoes which partisans are wont to lavish on men of whom they do not know exactly whether they are with or against them.  1
  Generally, the men of the Revolution are criticized in blocks and sections, and Condorcet cannot be accurately placed under any of these received schools. He was an Economist, but he was something more; for the most characteristic article in his creed was a passionate belief in the infinite perfectibility of human nature. He was more of a Girondin than a Jacobin, yet he did not always act, any more than he always thought, with the Girondins; and he did not fall when they fell, but was proscribed by a decree specially leveled at himself. Isolation of this kind is assuredly no merit in political action, but it explains the coldness with which Condorcet’s memory has been treated; and it flowed from some marked singularities both of character and opinion, which are of the highest interest, if we consider the position of the man, and the lustre of that ever-memorable time. “Condorcet,” said d’Alembert, “is a volcano covered with snow.” Said another, less picturesquely, “He is a sheep in a passion.” “You may say of the intelligence of Condorcet in relation to his person,” wrote Madame Roland, “that it is a subtle essence soaked in cotton.” The curious mixture disclosed by sayings like these, of warm impulse and fine purpose with immovable reserve, only shows that he of whom they were spoken belonged to the class of natures which may be called non-conducting. They are not effective, because without this effluence of power and feeling from within, the hearer or onlooker is stirred by no sympathetic thrill. They cannot be the happiest, because consciousness of the inequality between expression and meaning, between the influence intended and the impression conveyed, must be as tormenting as to one who dreams is the vain effort to strike a blow. If to be of this non-conducting temperament is impossible in the really greatest sorts of men, like St. Paul, St. Bernard, or Luther, at least it is no proper object of blame; for it is constantly the companion of lofty and generous aspiration. It was perhaps unfortunate that Condorcet should have permitted himself to be drawn into a position where his want of that magical quality by which even the loathed and loathsome Marat could gain the sympathies of men, should be so conspicuously made visible. Frankly, the character of Condorcet, unlike so many of his contemporaries, offers nothing to the theatrical instinct. None the less on this account should we weigh the contributions which he made to the stock of science and social speculation, and recognize the fine elevation of his sentiments, his noble solicitude for human well-being, his eager and resolute belief in its indefinite expansion, and the devotion which sealed his faith by a destiny that was as tragical as any in those bloody and most tragical days.  2
  UNTIL the outbreak of the Revolution, the circumstances of Condorcet’s life were as little externally disturbed or specially remarkable as those of any other geometer and thinker of the time. He was born in a small town in Picardy, in the year 1743. His father was a cavalry officer; but as he died when his son was only three years old, he could have exerted no influence upon the future philosopher, save such as comes of transmission through blood and tissue. Condillac was his uncle, but there is no record of any intercourse between them. His mother was a devout and trembling soul, who dedicated her child to the Holy Virgin, and for eight years or more made him wear the dress of a little girl, by way of sheltering him against the temptations and unbelief of a vile world. So long as women are held by opinion and usage in a state of educational and political subjection which prevents the growth of a large intelligence, made healthy and energetic by knowledge and by activity, we may expect to read of pious extravagances of this kind. Condorcet was weakened physically by much confinement and the constraint of cumbrous clothing; and not even his dedication to the Holy Virgin prevented him from growing up the most ardent of the admirers of Voltaire. His earliest instructors, as happened to most of the skeptical philosophers, were the Jesuits, then within a few years of their fall. That these adroit men, armed with all the arts and traditions which their order had acquired in three centuries, and with the training of the nation almost exclusively in their hands, should still have been unable to shield their persons from proscription and their creed from hatred, is a remarkable and satisfactory instance how little it avails ecclesiastical bodies to have a monopoly of official education, if the spirit of their teaching be out of harmony with those most potent agencies which we sum up as the spirit of the time. The Jesuits were the great official teachers of France for the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1764 the order was thrust forth from the country, and they left behind them an army of the bitterest enemies Christianity has ever had. To do them justice, they were destroyed by weapons which they had themselves supplied. The intelligence which they had so honorably developed and sharpened, turned inevitably against the incurable faults in their own system. They were admirable teachers of mathematics. Condorcet, instructed by the Jesuits at Rheims, was able, when he was only fifteen years old, to go through such performances in analysis as to win especial applause from illustrious judges like d’Alembert and Clairaut. It was impossible, however, for Jesuits, as it has ever been for all enemies of movement, to constrain within prescribed limits the activity which has once been effectively stirred. Mathematics has always been in the eyes of the Church a harmless branch of knowledge; but the mental energy that mathematics first touched is sure to turn itself by-and-by to more complex and dangerous subjects in the scientific hierarchy.
  At any rate, Condorcet’s curiosity was very speedily drawn to problems beyond those which geometry and algebra pretend to solve. “For thirty years,” he wrote in 1790, “I have hardly ever passed a single day without meditating on the political sciences.” Thus, when only seventeen, when the ardor of even the choicest spirits is usually most purely intellectual, moral and social feeling was rising in Condorcet to that supremacy which it afterwards attained in him to so admirable a degree. He wrote essays on integral calculus, but he was already beginning to reflect upon the laws of human societies and the conditions of moral obligation. At the root of Condorcet’s nature was a profound sensibility of constitution. One of his biographers explains his early enthusiasm for virtue and human welfare as the conclusion of a kind of syllogism. It is possible that the syllogism was only the later shape into which an instinctive impulse threw itself by way of rational intrenchment. This sensibility caused Condorcet to abandon the barbarous pleasures of the chase, which had at first powerfully attracted him. To derive delight from what inflicts pain on any sentient creature revolted his conscience and offended his reason; because he perceived that the character which does not shrink from associating its own joy with the anguish of another, is either found or left mortally blunted to the finest impressions of humanity. It was this same sensibility, fortified by reason, which drove him while almost still at school to reflect, as he confided to Turgot he had done, on the moral ideas of virtue and justice.  4
  It is thus assured that from the beginning Condorcet was unable to satisfy himself with the mere knowledge of the specialist, but felt the necessity of placing social aims at the head and front of his life, and of subordinating to them all other pursuits. That he values knowledge only as a means to social action, is one of the highest titles to our esteem that any philosopher can have. Such a temper of mind has penetrated no man more fully than Condorcet, though there are other thinkers to whom time and chance have been more favorable in making that temper permanently productive. There is a fine significance in his words, after the dismissal of the great and virtuous Turgot from office: “We have had a delightful dream, but it was too brief. Now I mean to apply myself to geometry. It is terribly cold to be for the future laboring only for the gloriole, after flattering oneself for a while that one was working for the public weal.” It is true that a geometer, too, works for the public weal; but the process is tardier, and we may well pardon an impatience that sprung of reasoned zeal for the happiness of mankind. There is something much more attractive about Condorcet’s undisguised disappointment at having to exchange active public labor for geometrical problems, than in the affected satisfaction conventionally professed by statesmen when driven from place to their books. His correspondence shows that even when his mind seemed to be most concentrated upon his special studies, he was incessantly on the alert for every new idea, book, transaction, that was likely to stimulate the love of virtue in individuals, or to increase the strength of justice in society. It would have been, in one sense, more fortunate for him to have cared less for high social interests, if we remember the contention of his latter days, and the catastrophe which brought them to so frightful a close. But Condorcet was not one of those natures who can think it happiness to look passively out from the tranquil literary watch-tower upon the mortal struggles of a society in a state of revolution. In measuring other men of science—as his two volumes of Eloges abundantly show—one cannot help being struck by the eagerness with which he seizes on any trait of zeal for social improvement, of anxiety that the lives and characters of our fellows should be better worth having. He was himself too absolutely possessed by this social spirit to have flinched from his career, even if he had foreseen the martyrdom which was to consummate it. “You are very happy,” he once wrote to Turgot, “in your passion for the public good, and your power to satisfy it; it is a great consolation, and of an order very superior to that of study.”  5
  In 1769, at the age of six-and-twenty, Condorcet became connected with the Academy; to the mortification of his relations, who hardly pardoned him for not being a captain of cavalry, as his father had been before him. About the same time or a little later, he performed a pilgrimage of a kind that could hardly help making a mark upon a character so deeply impressible. In company with d’Alembert, he went to Ferney and saw Voltaire. To the position of Voltaire in Europe in 1770 there has never been any other man’s position in any age wholly comparable. It is true that there had been one or two of the great popes, and a great ecclesiastic like St. Bernard, who had exercised a spiritual authority, pretty universally submitted to, or even spontaneously invoked, throughout western Europe. But these were the representatives of a powerful organization and an accepted system. Voltaire filled a place before men’s eyes in the eighteenth century as conspicuous and as authoritative as that of St. Bernard in the twelfth. The difference was that Voltaire’s place was absolutely unofficial in its origin, and indebted to no system nor organization for its maintenance. Again, there have been others, like Bacon or Descartes, destined to make a far more permanent contribution to the ideas which have extended the powers and elevated the happiness of men; but these great spirits for the most part labored for the generation that followed them, and won comparatively slight recognition from their own age. Voltaire, during his life, enjoyed to the full not only the admiration that belongs to the poet, but something of the veneration that is paid to the thinker, and even something of the glory usually reserved for captains and conquerors of renown. No other man before or since ever hit so exactly the mark of his time on every side, so precisely met the conditions of fame for the moment, nor so thoroughly dazzled and reigned over the foremost men and women who were his contemporaries. Wherever else intellectual fame has approached the fame of Voltaire, it has been posthumous. With him it was immediate and splendid. Into the secret of this extraordinary circumstance we need not here particularly inquire. He was an unsurpassed master of the art of literary expression in a country where that art is more highly prized than anywhere else; he was the most brilliant of wits among a people whose relish for wit is a supreme passion; he won the admiration of the lighter souls by his plays, of the learned by his interest in science, of the men of letters by his never-ceasing flow of essays, criticisms, and articles, not one of which lacks vigor and freshness and sparkle; he was the most active, bitter, and telling foe of what was then the most justly abhorred of all institutions,—the Church. Add to these remarkable titles to honor and popularity that he was no mere declaimer against oppression and injustice in the abstract, but the strenuous, persevering, and absolutely indefatigable champion of every victim of oppression or injustice whose case was once brought under his eye.  6

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