Marquis de Condorcet
To identify the Enlightenment squarely with the popular connotations of “progress” would be an over-simplification; to identify such progress squarely with the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), however, would be entirely proper. Condorcet’s most famous work, the Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind (1796), is characterized by an enthusiastic, unrestrained optimism regarding humankind’s potential for material, intellectual, and social improvement. Such confidence, in the breadth of human aspirations which it includes, and in their particular combinations, did not easily suit earlier Enlightenment thinkers. The leading French man of letters, Voltaire, was never able to convince himself that clear-thinking and commonsense reason could significantly alter the balance of good and evil in the world; philosopher David Hume agreed with Voltaire that humanity stood as great a chance of regressing to barbarism as of attaining political, religious, or moral stability, let alone indefinite progress. Neither Voltaire nor Hume was deterred, however, from offering concrete suggestions for the rearrangement of social institutions along more rational lines; yet their confidence was moderated by an estimation of human nature as influenced as much by non-rational as by rational forces. In the final writings of Condorcet represented in this selection, this hesitation is overcome, and the progress of humankind is made a direct function of the rational faculties of the race. This vision, often seen as a culmination of the Enlightenment, was to be tremendously influential in the following century.