Modern History Sourcebook:
The Future Progress of the Human Mind
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (1743
1794), was an aristocrat, a mathematician, an official of the
Academy of Sciences, and was a friend of Voltaire (16941778).
In sum, a perfect example of an Enlightenment figure.
Condorcet supported the revolution of 1789, but became a victim
of the revolution during the Radical period. For a time he was
able to hide, but soon after the completion of this Sketch
for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, he
was arrrested. He killed himself rather than wait for execution.
No one has ever believed that the human mind could exhaust all
the facts of nature, all the refinements of measuring and analyzing
these facts, the inter relationship of objects, and all the possible
combinations of ideas....
But because, as the number of facts known increases, man learns
to classify them, to reduce them to more general terms; because
the instruments and the methods of observation and exact measurement
are at the same time reaching a new precision; . . . the truths
whose discovery has cost the most effort, which at first could
be grasped only by men capable of profound thought, are soon carried
further and proved by methods that are no longer beyond the reach
of ordinary intelligence. If the methods that lead to new combinations
are exhausted, if their application to problems not yet solved
requires labors that exceed the time or the capacity of scholars,
soon more general methods, simpler means, come to open a new avenue
. . .
Applying these general reflections to the different sciences,
we shall give, for each, examples of their successive improvement
that will leave no doubt as to the certainty of the future improvements
we can expect. We shall indicate particularly the most likely
and most imminent progress in those sciences that are now commonly
believed to be almost exhausted. We shall point out how more universal
education in each country, by giving more people the elementary
knowledge that can inspire them with a taste for more advanced
study and give them the capacity for making progress in it, can
add to such hopes; how [these hopes] increase even more, if a
more general prosperity permits a greater number of individuals
to pursue studies, since at present, in the most enlightened countries,
hardly a fiftieth part of those men to whom nature has given talent
receive the education necessary to make use of their talents;
and that, therefore, the number of men destined to push back the
frontiers of the sciences by their discoveries will grow in the
same proportion [as universal education increases].
We shall show how this equality of education, and the equality
that will arise between nations, will speed up the advances of
those sciences whose progress depends on observations repeated
in greater number over a larger area; all that mineralogy, botany,
zoology, meteorology can be expected to gain thereby; and finally
what an enormous disproportion exists, in these sciences, between
the weakness of the means that nevertheless have led us to so
many useful and important truths, and the great scope of the means
men will in the future be able to deploy.
. . .
If we now turn to the mechanical arts, we shall see that their
progress can have no other limit than the reach of the scientific
theories on which they depend; that the methods of these arts
are capable of the same improvement, the same simplifications
as methods in the sciences. Instruments, machines, looms will
increasingly supplement the strength and skill of men; will augment
at the same time the perfection and the precision of manufactures
by lessening both the time and the labor needed to produce them.
Then the obstacles that still impede this progress will disappear,
and along with them accidents that will become preventable and
unhealthy conditions in general, whether owing to work, or habits,
Then a smaller and smaller area of land will be able to produce
commodities of greater use or higher value; wider enjoyment will
be obtained with less outlay; the same manufacturing output will
call for less expenditure of raw materials or will be more durable.
For each kind of soil people will know how to choose, from among
crops that satisfy the same kind of need, those crops that are
most versatile, those that satisfy [the needs on a greater mass
of users, requiring less labor and less real consumption. Thus,
without any sacrifice, the methods of conservation and of economy
in consumption will follow the progress of the art of producing
the various commodities, preparing them and turning them into
` Thus not only will the same amount of land be able to feed more
people; but each of them, with less labor, will be employed more
productively and will be able to satisfy his needs better.
. . .
But in this progress of industry and prosperity . . . each generation
. . . is destined to fuller enjoyment; and hence, as a consequence
of the physical constitution of the human species, to an increase
of the population. Will there not come a time when . . . the increase
in population surpassing its means of subsistence, the result
would necessarily be-if not a continuous decline in wellbeing
and number of people, a truly retrograde movement-at least a kind
of oscillation between good and bad? Would not such oscillations
in societies that have reached this point be an everpresent
cause of more or less periodic suffering? Would this not mark
the limit beyond which all improvement would become impossible.
. . ?
No one will fail to see how far removed from us this time is;
but will we reach it one day? It is impossible to speak for or
against an event that will occur only at a time when the human
species will necessarily have acquired knowledge that we cannot
even imagine. And who, in fact, would dare to predict what the
art of converting the elements to our use may one day become?
But supposing a limit were reached, nothing terrible would happen,
regarding either the happiness or the indefinite perfectibility
of mankind. We must also suppose that before that time, the progress
of reason will have gone hand in hand with progress in the arts
and sciences; that the ridiculous prejudices of superstition will
no longer cover morality with an austerity that corrupts and degrades
it instead of purifying and elevating it. Men will know then that
if they have obligations to beings who do not yet exist, these
obligations do not consist in giving life, but in giving happiness.
Their object is the general welfare of the human species, of the
society in which people live, of the family to which they belong
and not the puerile idea of filling the earth with useless and
unhappy beings. The possible quantity of the means of subsistence
could therefore have a limit, and consequently so could the attainable
level of population, without resulting in the destruction . .
. of part of the living.
Among the progress of the human mind that is most important for
human happiness, we must count the entire destruction of the prejudices
that have established inequality between the sexes, fatal even
to the sex it favors. One would look in vain for reasons to justify
it, by differences in physical constitution, intelligence, moral
sensibility. This inequality has no other source but the abuse
of power, and men have tried in vain to excuse it by sophisms.
We shall show how much the destruction of customs authorized by
this prejudice, of the laws it has dictated, can contribute to
the greater happiness of families, and to the spread of the domestic
virtues, the first foundation of all other virtues. It will promote
the progress of education, because [education] will be extended
to both sexes more equally, and because education cannot become
general, even among men, without the cooperation of mothers.
. . .
All these causes of the improvement of the human species, all
these means that assure it, will by their nature act continuously
and acquire a constantly growing momentum.
We have explained the proofs of this . . .; we could therefore
already conclude that the perfectibility of man is unlimited,
even though, up to now, we have only supposed him endowed with
the same natural faculties and organization. What then would be
the certainty and extent of our hopes if we could believe that
these natural faculties themselves and this organization are also
susceptible of improvement? This is the last question remaining
for us to examine.
The organic perfectibility or degeneration of races in plants
and animals may be regarded as one of the general laws of nature.
This law extends to the human species; and certainly no one will
doubt that progress in medical conservation [of life], in the
use of healthier food and housing, a way of living that would
develop strength through exercise without impairing it by excess,
and finally the destruction of the two most active causes of degradation-misery
and too great wealth-will prolong the extent of life and assure
people more constant health as well as a more robust constitution.
We feel that the progress of preventive medicine as a preservative,
made more effective by the progress of reason and social order,
will eventually banish communicable or contagious illnesses and
those diseases in general that originate in climate, food, and
the nature of work. It would not be difficult to prove that this
hope should extend to almost all other diseases, whose more remote
causes will eventually be recognized. Would it be absurd now to
suppose that the improvement of the human race should be regarded
as capable of unlimited progress? That a time will come when death
would result only from extraordinary accidents or the more and
more gradual wearing out of vitality, and that, finally, the duration
of the average interval between birth and wearing out has itself
no specific limit whatsoever? No doubt man will not become immortal,
but cannot the span constantly increase between the moment he
begins to live and the time when naturally, without illness or
accident, he finds life a burden?
From Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit
humain (Paris: Masson et Fils, 1822), pp. 27985, 29394,
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997