Friday, January 30, 2015

Condorcet’s “inner resolve”

“High priority for the regime was Condorcet’s liquidation. Sentenced to death as an outlaw on 2 October 1793, he asked his wife to divorce him to protect her and save his assets for their daughter. Despite repeated searchers, he eluded his foes and during many months successfully hid with Cabanis’s help, alternately at Mme. Helvétius’s residence and Garat’s. Later he transferred to another hiding place in Paris’s southern fringe, remaining concealed until March 1794. Fending off their depression, Sophie—who according to Hébert had had an affair with Ducos—labored at translating Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Condorcet at his Tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. As the Terror engulfed them in his last months, he refused to give up the courageous optimism infusing his early efforts throughout the revolutionary years. If anyone persevered indomitably under Robespierre’s menace, it was Condorcet.
‘Shall we believe the opinion interpreting equality not as equal access to enlightenment, or equal development of moral sentiments purified and perfected by reason, but instead as equality of ignorance, corruption, and ferocity, can permanently degrade a nation? Shall we believe these men [Marat and Robespierre] fostering this stupid opinion, whose ambitious and jealous mediocrity renders enlightenment odious and virtue suspect, can maintain a durable illusion? No, they can make humanity weep over the loss of some rare and precious men that are entirely worthy of her, they can make their country sigh over the irreparable injustices they wreak, but they will not prevent the Enlightenment’s advance, even if it is checked temporarily; it will resume and accelerate. Certainly it is possible to deceive peoples and mislead them—but not permanently brutalize and corrupt them.’ 
Such a valiant profession of faith required great inner resolve at a time when elimination of the intellectual bloc who forged the Revolution was unrelenting, and paralleled by stringent measures emasculating all political debate, the city sections, clubs, and departmental administrations.—Jonathan Israel, from his chapter on “The Terror” in Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (2014): 534-535.


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