Cabanis, the physician, was Condorcet’s literary executor, and a no less ardent believer in human perfectibility. Looking at life and man from his own special point of view, he saw in the study of the physical organism the key to the intellectual and moral improvement of the race. It is by knowledge of the relations between his physical states and moral states that man can attain happiness, through the enlargement of his faculties and the multiplication of enjoyments, and that he will be able to grasp, as it were, the infinite in his brief existence by realising the certainty of indefinite progress. His doctrine was a logical extension of the theories of Locke and Condillac. If our knowledge is wholly derived from sensations, our sensations depend on our sensory organs, and mind becomes a function of the nervous system.
The events of the Revolution quenched in him as little as in Condorcet the sanguine confidence that it was the opening of a new era for science and art, and thereby for the general Progress of man. “The present is one of those great periods of history to which posterity will often look back” with gratitude. [Footnote: Picavet, Les Ideologues, p. 203. Cabanis was born in 1757 and died in 1808.] He took an active part in the coup d’etat of the 18th of Brumaire (1799) which was to lead to the despotism of Napoleon. He imagined that it would terminate oppression, and was as enthusiastic for it as he and Condorcet had been for the Revolution ten years before. “You philosophers,” he wrote, [Footnote: Ib. p. 224.] “whose studies are directed to the improvement and happiness of the race, you no longer embrace vain shadows. Having watched, in alternating moods of hope and sadness, the great spectacle of our Revolution, you now see with joy the termination of its last act; you will see with rapture this new era, so long promised to the French people, at last open, in which all the benefits of nature, all the creations of genius, all the fruits of time, labour, and experience will be utilised, an era of glory and prosperity in which the dreams of your philanthropic enthusiasm should end by being realised.”
It was an over-sanguine and characteristic greeting of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Cabanis was one of the most important of those thinkers who, living into the new period, took care that the ideas of their own generation should not be overwhelmed in the rising flood of reaction.