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Reviewed by:
  • Condorcet and Modernity
  • Tili Boon Cuillé
David Williams. Condorcet and Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xi + 306 pp.

In Condorcet and Modernity, David Williams rescues one of the French Revolution's most intriguing yet neglected figures from the margins of Intellectual History and the shadow of Rousseau. Our view of Condorcet's contribution to the "art of government" (1) and the "architecture of modernity" (8) has been obscured by the profusion of treatises that he devoted to various social causes, by the rapidly escalating events of the French Revolution, and by critical studies dedicated to isolated aspects of his œuvre. Drawing on these diverse elements, Williams restores the portrait of Condorcet as visionary and pragmatist to its original splendor.

In his introduction, Williams provides the reader with an overview of works dedicated to Condorcet since the late nineteenth century, an annotated bibliography placed at the disposal of those interested in pursuing the subject. His text spans the period from Louis XVI's accession to the throne in 1774 to Condorcet's death twenty years later. In the concise, compelling biography that constitutes his first chapter, Williams traces the development of Condorcet's social vision and political affinities, emphasizing the steadfastness of his stance on the shifting sands of the American and French Revolutions. We witness his triumphs and disappointments as he alternately catalyzed and was caught in the throes of revolution. Williams acquaints us with the origin and occasion of the accusations that continue to color Condorcet's reputation. He does not seek to justify but rather rationalizes Condorcet's voting record (which attracted criticism from Girondins and Montagnards alike) and occasional guilty silences (which have earned the criticism of historians), placing them in the context of the inexorable events that led to the death of the king.

One of the rare Enlightenment philosophers to be equally committed to theory and practice, Condorcet proposed concrete solutions to the social problems he identified and means of garnering public support for [End Page 137] the progressive measures he promoted. Yet the chief merit of his writings proved to be their fatal flaw, for his contemporaries, like his readers, were frequently unable to see the forest for the trees. Moving with ease among his writings, Williams reveals Condorcet's contributions to our modern conception of human rights, secular society, education, legislation, and justice. He gives the reader a sense of the form and content of Condorcet's treatises yet synthesizes his ideas to prevent us from getting bogged down in his penchant for detail. Emphasizing the interconnections between Condorcet's philosophical convictions, mathematical insights, and views on public policy and social reform, Williams enables us at last to appreciate the integral nature of Condorcet's thought.

The portrait of Condorcet that emerges under Williams's deft touch is one of a mathematical genius turned statesman whose formative influences include d'Alembert, Voltaire, and Turgot and who opposed the precepts and policies of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Necker. Persuaded that human rights are natural and should be preserved by the laws of a just society, Condorcet firmly believed in scientific progress and human perfectibility. Yet the French legal code tended to reinforce rather than rectify the law of the strongest that set rich over poor, man over woman, master over slave, and Catholic over Protestant. Condorcet denied that according rights to Protestants, slaves, and women would pose a threat to society, but nor did he think that such reforms should be instigated over night. A gradualist as well as a pragmatist, Condorcet was convinced that universal education was the key to enlightenment and a prerequisite to universal rights. As the Revolution unfolded, he converted from his faith in an enlightened monarchy to faith in a republic of enlightened citizens. Education would enable the people not only to exercise their rights with responsibility but to recognize the pertinence of what Condorcet termed his "social mathematics." Condorcet applied probability theory and the theory of mean value to his efforts to reform public finance and public works and to promote free trade. His mathematical theories of voting and juries are still in effect today. He extended his sense of fair elections and fair trials to...


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pp. 137-139
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