Thursday, July 15, 2010

The French Revolution and Enlightenment

© Mukesh Williams

The French Revolution was a watershed in the history of hereditary imperative and political privilege. It initially began as a financial crisis and gradually went out of control as the French elite began to seek political reform at the expense of the French monarchy. It rode on the twin wings of the American Revolution and the Enlightenment ideas. The first phase of the French Revolution saw emergence of constitutional government and the curtailment of the privileges of the Old Regime. The next phase saw the rise of radicalism in response to the threat of foreign invasion and the various maneuvers of the King, legislators and people. The radical phase became intense when Robespierre initiated the Regime de la terreur. At last a French general Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and initiated an unstable conservative government.

In July 1793 Marquis de Condorcet wrote his now famous essay Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progres de l’espirit humain or The Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In April 1974 he was executed by the Jacobins. The essay was published in 1795. The essay became the central text of the French Enlightenment and the idealistic manifesto of the post-Thermidorian reconstruction in France.

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat or Marquis de Condorcet as he was called (1743-1794), was an aristocrat, a mathematician, an official of the Academy of Sciences, and a friend of Voltaire (1694-¬1778). He was one of the early French enlightenment figures who supported the French Revolution of 1789, but during its short-lived Radical period became a victim through betrayal and frankness. Though he could hide for a short while after the completion of the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, he was arrested. It is said he killed himself by taking poison. Others say he was poisoned by someone as he was loved by the people too much and the authorities could not afford a public execution.

The hero of Condorcet’s work is reason that first appeared in philosophy, then in natural sciences and afterwards in moral and political sciences. With the coming of the printing press the full possibilities of reason, through the publication of books, became possible. Reason triumphed over the stratagems of priest, tyrants and hypocrites and gained great energy.

Condorcet’s concept of progress was teleological and involved the infinite possibilities of human perfection. He believed that the future could be predicted based on the general laws of the universe but it was more of a utopian dream. Condorcet thought that eventually everyone would enjoy racial and sexual equality and nations would share economic wealth as equal partners. This would allow the transformation of our biological nature and lead to the extension of human life. Condorcet’s Esquisse seems ironic today in the light of the atrocities of the two world wars in the twentieth century and various other human shortcomings. Condorcet confused faith in scientific progress with virtue and human happiness. But even today many hope that his dreams may come true through healthy public debates and enlightened mass education.

A century later Max Weber began to expose the myths, stage models, social evolutionism and the dark side of Enlightenment. He argued that freedom and republican democracy did not constitute the telos of human history. The rise of capitalism posed a significant threat to freedom and democracy.
No one ever believed that the human mind would exhaust all the ‘facts’ or facets of nature, all the refinements of measuring and analyzing these facts, the inter relationship of objects, and all the possible combinations of ideas.

Condorcet believed that over the centuries nations had come to realize that they cannot conquer and colonize without losing their hard-fought freedoms. It was only in global federations that nations could find their interdependence and independence. If nations sought security then acquiring power was not the means to get security. The increased power of nations invariably brought in an increased sense of insecurity. The whole idea of economic progress at the cost of others had only resulted in bloodshed. He felt that his utopian conceptualizations would eventually come true.

He further stated that the false mercantile economy based on self-interest and prejudice must give way to an intimacy of peoples based on foundational principles of politics and morality. In such a world skills based on industry or exploitation of nature will be shared equally amongst natives and foreigners. This will become the surest way to eradicate national animosities and stereotyping. He avowed that,

Every thing tells us that we are approaching the era of one of the grand revolutions of the human race. What can better enlighten us to what we may expect, what can be a surer guide to us, amidst its commotions, than the picture of the revolutions that have preceded and prepared the way for it? The present state of knowledge assures us that it will be happy. But is it not upon condition that we know how to assist it with all our strength? And, that the happiness it promises may be less dearly bought, that it may spread with more rapidity over a greater space, that it may be more complete in its effects, is it not requisite to study, in the history of the human mind, what obstacles remain to be feared, and by what means those obstacles are to be surmounted?

Condorcet’s was a rather simplistic vision of the future for Kant who saw a gap between the “is” and the “ought. Kant argued that the only way to bridge the gap between the two was to introduce a universal moral imperative.

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