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The Religion of Science and Its High Priest

1.

In his heyday, Auguste Comte (1798–1857) captivated some of the brightest minds of the nineteenth century with his alternative to religion, which he called positivism. Among his admirers we find John Stuart Mill, Alexander von Humboldt, George Eliot, Rabindranath Tagore, and, in this country, the founder of The New Republic, Herbert Croly. A statue of Comte stands outside the Sorbonne, his motto—“Order and Progress”—graces the Brazilian flag, and his Temples of Humanity can still be found in a handful of cities. Yet if Comte is remembered today at all, it is by sociologists. They see him as the eccentric father of their discipline, who founded a crackpot cult called the Religion of Humanity.

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The French philosopher Auguste Comte

Mary Pickering’s exhaustive biography of Comte is unlikely to change that. She firmly roots Comte’s ideas in post-Revolutionary France and charts how they spread to Victorian England and beyond. If she does not succeed in making the case for Comte as a philosopher of the first rank, it is largely because he is too bizarre to bear the burden. Comte was a thinker, after all, who attempted to systematize all the knowledge of his age, but whose strict regime of “cerebral hygiene” kept him from reading much of it. Yet aspects of his thought are hauntingly familiar: his emphasis on social science as the supreme guide for public planning, his call for a “priestly” class of managerial experts, his propagation of the idea of “altruism.”

Comte’s systems and theories appealed to a generation of French intellectuals trying to make sense of a confusing period of upheaval. Untethered from traditional certainties, and with their dreams for post-Revolutionary France rapidly fading after the restoration of the monarchy, they hoped for one last chance to put their era’s scientific knowledge at the service of their utopian ideals. Comte was the philosopher they turned to in crisis. For specialists unsettled by the tumult of recent events, he seemed to present a universal picture. For revolutionaries concerned about the fate of fraternity in an age of egotism, he seemed to promise a scientific solution. In volume after volume, Comte pointed the way for science to substitute not only for France’s lost sense of political order, but also for religion itself. As Raymond Aron, who took Comte seriously, wrote, “It is easy to laugh at Auguste Comte, but it is more important to understand the nature of his apparent naiveté.” Comte’s belief that science could cure our political and moral problems is a persistent folly of modern thought, but in his case it comes wrapped in some surprisingly potent ideas for social rejuvenation.

2.

Auguste Comte belonged to the first generation of French thinkers to come of age after the Revolution. He was born in 1798 into a well-off Catholic family in Montpellier, where his father was a tax collector. In a memoir of his childhood, Comte reflected bitterly on his parents’ religious and royalist sympathies. He claimed to have undergone “all the essential stages of the revolutionary spirit” by the age of fourteen and saw himself as an heir of the philosophes. From his earliest years as a student, Comte dreamed of rerunning the experiment of the Revolution without the errors of violence that had discredited it. His family had witnessed the tactics of the Terror firsthand when the Jacobins transformed the Montpellier cathedral into a ramshackle Temple of Reason and scrawled the message “la Terre détruit le Ciel”—the Earth destroys the Heavens—on the door. For Comte, such acts betrayed the principles of 1789. The Revolution was not meant to tear society apart; rather, for him, it was a long-awaited invitation to assemble a new civic order.

Comte was not alone in this undertaking. Post-Revolutionary Paris was full of utopian schemers, each hawking a different vision of social regeneration. Their visions took the form of elaborate systems, full of mesmerizing charts and blueprints, whose scientific aura attracted a new generation of students who saw France as a testing place for their ideas. The utopian with the greatest following was Henri de Saint-Simon, an aristocratic media magnate who funded a series of salons and technical journals aimed at young scientists. Saint-Simon’s ambition was to transform Europe from a feudal backwater into a thriving “industrial society,” linked by a dense network of railroads, steamships, and banks. The society would be administered by financiers, in consultation with a small group of artists and scientists in touch with the latest developments in their fields. Taken together, Saint-Simon’s formulations are one of the first theories of economic development, but he had trouble getting his thoughts in order. In 1817 he hired Comte as his assistant.

What Saint-Simon saw in Comte was what later won over Comte’s disciples: he combined utopian aspirations with a rigorous training in the most up-to-date sciences. Comte studied at the École Polytechnique, the best scientific institution of its day, where he excelled in mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology. The students at the Polytechnique in the 1810s were deeply opposed to the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII, but they had no clear idea of how their scientific studies could restart revolutionary progress. In his earliest writings, Comte suggested how their work would fit into the grander tapestry of history. The French Revolution, he explained, was simply a political corollary to the scientific and economic achievements that had accumulated since the Reformation. But the Revolutionaries had made a crucial mistake by appealing to abstract principles that were hopelessly outdated. For Comte the point was to base politics on the latest scientific knowledge about human society so that government administration could develop into a fully mature science like astronomy.

The word “positive” for Comte had two distinct meanings. In the first sense, he used it as a synonym for “scientific,” by which he meant the acquisition of human knowledge through empirical observations and theories based on them. Comte’s positive program for the sciences sought to eliminate all the metaphysical concerns that he believed were irrelevant to scientific and social advancement. Just as abstract reasoning about the “nature” of freedom and rights was unnecessary for social progress, so Comte believed that when physicists described the phenomena of motion, they could do so without bothering to speculate about the “essence” of matter and movement.

In a second, more technical sense, Comte used “positive” to distinguish the affirmative character of his program from the “negative” and “critical” sort of scientific analysis he associated with the rise of individualism in the industrial age. Positive science would be more constructive, he argued, because it took human society as a complete whole for its subject, as opposed to the classical Cartesian view, which Comte criticized for reducing humanity to a series of solitary perceiving minds.

Comte and Saint-Simon had barely begun their collaboration before a series of petty rivalries came between them. In 1826, Comte struck out on his own as a private lecturer and was soon celebrated as a bright young star in French intellectual circles. Distinguished scientists, Alexander von Humboldt among them, crowded weekly into Comte’s Left Bank apartment to listen to the twenty-eight-year-old describe how their research could contribute to the regeneration of France. He flattered his auditors with the prediction that they were on the cusp of the positive age, when their services and expertise would be required to take over the steering of the state.

In the 1820s, Comte began writing up his lecture notes into what would become the six-volume Cours de philosophie positive. The Cours remains one of the last major attempts by a single man to write a synoptic account of all human knowledge. For most of the volumes, Comte performs a frenzied form of scientific housekeeping, outlining which disciplines have reached perfection and which, to his mind, needed more work. His recommendations, sometimes interesting, often absurd, span nearly every conceivable subject: astronomy, physics, barology, thermology, acoustics, optics, electrology, geology, chemistry, biology, aesthetics, history. But the book is revealing as a glimpse at sociology in its infancy: not yet an academic discipline that can coexist with others, it became for Comte the micromanager of all the other sciences.

As Comte saw it, the sociologist was to be a specialist in scientific generalities, whose job it was to determine the course of research and development for society at large. If Comte’s vision bears little resemblance to contemporary sociology, it’s because he rejected many of the categories and methods of the field later established by Émile Durkheim. For instance, Comte was against the use of statistics because he feared that society, as a set of organic relations, would suffer faulty political prescriptions if any element of it were subjected to the calculus of inductive inference.

The most fertile areas of sociological investigation for Comte were the family, the relations between the sexes, traditional customs, civic monuments, and language. By studying these phenomena, he believed that sociologists could advise the state how best to manage institutions to suit society’s most pressing material and emotional needs. But Comte hardly performed any of this positive empirical research himself. It was left to Durkheim to separate Comte’s insights from his pretensions, and to make sociology into a practical science that collected data and reported on findings rather than one that saw itself as a replacement for philosophy, and later religion.

3.

The Cours had small appeal in Paris bookshops when it started to appear in 1830. Comte wrote some of the worst prose of any major French writer and dispensed it in lethal doses. The pages were packed with ad hominem attacks on members of the scientific establishment—alienating the very class of men Comte meant to attract. In the first three years after its publication, only 170 copies of the first volume sold. Few would know Comte’s name today if one of those copies had not fallen into the hands of John Stuart Mill. In the 1840s, Mill was desperately trying to rework Jeremy Bentham’s doctrine of utilitarianism to account for the fusion of thought and feeling he had discovered in the Romantic poets.

Like Comte, Mill felt that his exceedingly severe education had favored his powers of analysis over his emotions and imagination. Mill was particularly frustrated with Bentham’s understanding of mankind as an aggregation of individuals, each pursuing their own interests so long as they did not harm others. In reading the Cours, he thought that Comte had discovered a more humane way to reform society: instead of mechanically rewarding and punishing citizens for their actions through legal means, a more progressive government would have to concern itself first and foremost with the moral and emotional development of each of its members.

It is striking in Mill and Comte’s early correspondence to see the father of modern liberalism persuaded by ideas so foreign to his tradition. But Mill seriously entertained Comte’s belief that the rule of a scientific elite could serve as a corrective to the atomizing tendencies of modern society. He was particularly drawn to Comte’s view that humanity was leaving behind a fractured, individualistic age of disorder and entering a new “positive” era, when each member of society would be personally fulfilled by contributing to common ends determined by a group of scientists who knew better. Not for the last time in the history of political thought, the liberal was tempted by the technocrat.

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