At least after World Wars, any talk of inevitable progress in history seems out of place – every apparent step forward appears to have led to even more horrible atrocities. Yet, the notion of progress seemed so natural for over a century that it should be seriously considered, even if the idea feels naive these days.
Condorcet's Tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain is as infatuated with the idea of progression as a book can be. Its picture of human history is not a straightforward line of progression, because Condorcet does accept that the development of humanity could stop from time to time – for instance, in quite a traditional fashion, Condorcet paints Middle Ages as a time of cultural stagnation and even decay. Still, the main theme of Condorcet's work is one of on-going development.
Condorcet begins from pre-historical times. Of course, he lived in time, when no reliable knowledge of the early development of humanity was available and he was thus forced to speculate on many important questions. Yet, he did raise a central question – why did particularly human beings gain the power to form huge civilisations? Condorcet notes some peculiarities in the physical form of humans – e.g. two hands give them advantage in forming tools. But the most important element explaining the rise of human kind was language, Condorcet says.
An important early invention was agriculture, which helped to sustain human life and allowed people to gather into large collections. This centralisation of human population is not just pure development, Condorcet says, because it also led to centralisation of wealth and power. More remote offspring of this current is warfare – it makes no sense to conquer a roving band of hunter-gatherers, but it is possible to conquer villages and towns. Such conquests led to even further imbalance in society, since the conquering class of people usually received more rights than the people conquered.
One major theme in Condorcet's writing – and indeed, in whole Enlightenment – is the supposed deviousness of clergy. Clerics had power, because they had some important knowledge, for instance, about movement of stars and about proper times for planting seeds. Clergy also had the access to alphabets, early versions of which were often cumbersome to read and write. Although holders of knowledge, priests also mixed truths with errors and even outright lies, which helped them to control the human population.
Condorcet's rather fanciful conspiracy theory sets the tone for the rest of the book. Greeks began the process of liberating reason from superstition, but because they couldn't obliterate the power of priests and other tyrants, the progress was halted and continued only in renaissance. Condorcet emphasises especially the development of science at the beginning of modern age, but also the invention of printing press, which kept truth alive, even under censure. Then final phase of the human development begins then with the American and French Revolutions, which helped to eradicate final social inequalities.
It is especially Condorcet's speculation of the future of humankind, which interests us. It comes as no surprise that Condorcet believes in even further progression, which could be forestalled only by a barbarian invasion. I already noted that Condorcet believed that French revolution had resulted in destruction of all privileges traditionally given to some class of people. Condorcet went even so far as to suppose that in the new society even the genders would have equal status. This does not mean that Condorcet would have held the idea that women could be as valuable as men in society. Especially in case of mathematical sciences, Condorcet believed that females could never obtain the highest rank of a creative genius – a common presupposition of his day.
Condorcet also didn't think that all inequality could be eradicated forever, because he supposed people to have different natural talents, which inevitably leads to e.g. differences in wealth. Yet, like any student of Adam Smith, Condorcet appears to have believed that a kind of invisible hand would keep economy balanced and fair, as long as all traditional privileges were cancelled.
We might ask if Condorcet's hope of diminishing inequality could be nothing but a phantom, if he was not willing to give the state any power to regulate the economy. Yet, Condorcet puts all his chips on education – a very Enlightenment-like move. Apparently all that is enough is just teaching everyone to look things from a more general perspective and especially making them learn probability calculus. Armed with this tool, a person could just calculate her chances of getting any profit from some actions – and by seeing, for instance, that potential punishments overcame all possible benefits of a crime, anyone would be convinced of not committing a crime.
We are starting to see the weak side of Condorcet's science fiction, that is, blind reliance on the powers of human reason. It is fantastic to think that everyone could become a master calculator, able and willing to use mathematics for finding out the best course of action. Yet, even if such a fabulous discipline could really exist in any but quite rudimentary fashion, we might still be skeptical of everyone actually using such a behavorial calculus – and having the strength of will to follow its advice, even against strong temptations.
Similar naivety occurs also in Condorcet's notion of international politics: he believes that the value of commerce would inevitably lead to a time of peace, since in the new liberated phase of human history no country would in the long run benefit from a war. Still, Condorcet does allow patriotism, and indeed, believes it to be a necessary part of the life of a good citizen – one must love one's country and all its denizens. Again quite naively, Condorcet thinks that in a good society, patriotism cannot be in conflict with cosmopolitan and open attitude toward other nations.