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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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It took a jolt to bring Mill to his senses. Comte never anticipated that, of all things, it would be his fairly conventional views about women that would repel his friend. He marshaled scientific evidence about female mental deficiency in his letters to Mill, expecting him to come around on what he took to be a basic point; but Mill refused to be shaken from his conviction that women were fundamentally equal to men. His companion, Harriet Taylor, urged Mill to counter “this dry root of a man” with a book on the subject. The Subjection of Women (1869) borrowed its title from one of Comte’s letters and included arguments Mill had sharpened in his correspondence with him.

In his 1866 book Auguste Comte and Positivism, Mill whitewashed the traces of his earlier sympathy and condemned nearly every aspect of the positivist enterprise. He no longer accepted that progress would advance as smoothly as Comte believed: he argued that citizens should not be subordinated to anyone but their chosen representatives—certainly not to scientists and technocrats. When Comte published his second large work, Système de politique positive (1851–1854), Mill denounced it as “the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yet emanated from a human brain.” But by then Comte’s thought had already taken a radical turn.

4.

Comte’s “Religion of Humanity” is not something we might have expected from the same man who denounced incarnations of secular religion like Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being and Saint-Simon’s New Christianity. Pickering’s main claim is that Comte’s turn to religion was not the result of one of his manic episodes, as is commonly believed, but rather followed naturally from his attempt to provide society with a new intellectual mooring. The immediate inspiration for Comte’s “religion,” however, grew out of intensely personal circumstances.

In 1845 he met a young married woman named Clotilde de Vaux and promptly fell in love. A vain, impoverished aristocrat with literary pretensions, Clotilde was more interested in Comte’s intellectual reputation than his physical advances. Their letters to each other read like heated exchanges from Les Liaisons dangereuses, with Comte making sexual demands and Clotilde rapturously rebuffing them. When she died only a year after they met, Comte was devastated and spent the rest of his life in mourning. He wore a black frock that became his trademark, set up a shrine to Clotilde in his apartment, and devoted one of the feast days of the Religion of Humanity to her memory.

For someone who had never made much of the women in his life, Comte now saw women as a critical resource for binding a fractured society together through the social bonds of love. By elevating the central place of the emotions in his system, Comte believed he had advanced beyond all earlier social theories and found the perfect complement to his rigorously scientific program. “One tires of thinking and even of acting,” he wrote, “but one never tires of loving.” Selfless devotion to others, or “altruism,” as Comte called it, would fill the place of the belief in God left void by the triumph of scientific positivism. In a world where nothing was transcendent, humankind would worship its own unity.

For Comte, altruism was not simply an idea or a value—it could actually be located in the human brain. Based on his extensive study of Franz Gall’s phrenology, Comte drew up a Tableau cérébral, where he mapped out all the major human instincts. The organs that produced altruism were situated in the far back of the skull, in the occipital lobe, just above the regions responsible for egotism. Comte believed that these weak altruistic organs could overcome their egotistic superiors with the correct social training. He went so far as to design special waistcoats that could only be put on with the aid of another person, giving an added boost to altruism with every button.

It was this aspect of Comte’s thought that strangely enough most appealed to fellow travelers of the Religion of Humanity such as George Eliot. While Middlemarch registers Eliot’s strong distaste for grand systems, Dorothea Brooke’s struggle in the novel to serve altruistic instinct over the intellect was an instance of Comte’s theory in action. The English adherents of positivism—who, along with Eliot, included her companion George Lewes, Richard Congreve, and Harriet Martineau, whose abridged translation of the Cours made Comte widely read—drew from Comte the belief that true ethics could be grounded in natural human emotions, which could be confirmed through scientific study rather than Christian justification. The sense of themselves as pioneers of a new sect attracted English positivists who sometimes fancied themselves the new scientific clergy. The “Great Being of Humanity” invoked by Comte consisted less in reverence toward the grand total of all human beings past and present than toward those “capable of assimilation, in virtue of a real cooperation…in furthering the common good.” Loyal pets would become members of the Positivist Elect before “human manure.”

Comte’s formal “Church of Humanity” turned out to be a satire of the Catholicism it was meant to replace. The pious positivist was to pray three times daily, once to each of his household goddesses: his mother, his daughter, and his wife. Women were to strive for Virgin-Mother status, which Comte hoped could soon be accomplished with vials of an artificial fertility stimulant that they could use whenever they chose. With their “vivifying fluid” rendered socially useless, he expected the sexual appetite of men to diminish to the point that their genitalia would wither away through evolution.

Comte instructed disciples to tap themselves each day three times on the back of the head, where the impulses of “Good Will,” “Order,” and “Progress” were stored. The positivist calendar dedicated a month of worship to each of the thirteen great men of humanity—Moses, Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, Julius Caesar, Saint Paul, Charlemagne, Dante, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Descartes, Frederick the Great, and the French anatomist Bichat. There were nine positivist sacraments, beginning with Presentation, in which, as in Baptism, the infant was given two positivist saints drawn from the hundreds of historical figures Comte had selected to preside over each day of the year.

When he died, a positivist’s remains were to be interred in a sacred grove surrounding each positivist temple (Notre-Dame was to be requisitioned as the first of these). All dead positivists were to be worshiped by the living on special feast days determined by the Grand Pontiff of Humanity—Comte himself, not surprisingly. “Humanity is made up of more dead than living,” he wrote, “and the dead govern the living more and more.”

The positivist church never numbered more than a few thousand members.1 Comte spent his last years busying himself with administrative formalities, such as marriage counseling for young positivists (there could not have been a worse man for the job) and obsessing over whether sacraments were being performed correctly (including one positivist baptism in Long Island). After his death in 1857, Comte’s admirers Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta carried on his thinking in a watered-down form as leaders of the Third Republic. Like most other members of the second generation, they were positivists mostly in the sense that they advocated uniform moral education for French schoolchildren and ritualized the observance of the country’s dead intellectual heroes. Only a dwindling number of Comte’s disciples kept the faith by the time of the Paris Commune. On January 1, 1881, the religion’s remaining members in London, Le Havre, Rouen, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, and New York all made a synchronized bow in the direction of Paris, where Pierre Laffitte, the successor of the Grand Pontiff, was conducting the ceremony of the Feast of Humanity out of Comte’s apartment.

Comte’s influence today is at once profound and hard to pinpoint. In the social sciences, “positivist” is a term of abuse; we are now said to live in a “post-positivist” world. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the meaning of positivism dramatically narrowed after Comte’s death. In Vienna, Ernst Mach and his followers stripped Comte’s legacy of its social reformist and theoretical components and focused exclusively on its empiricism. “Logical positivism,” as this strand became known, reached its height in the 1930s, with the publication of works by Rudolf Carnap and A.J. Ayer. In legal theory, positivism was championed by Hans Kelsen, while the young Milton Friedman made a case for “positive economics.” These latter-day positivists were determined to pass off their methods as value-free, but they came under attack for their refusal to acknowledge their dependence on the dominant assumptions of their age. Comte never made that mistake.

In the US recently, a more socially minded, neo-Comtean current of positivism runs through the thought of some leading scientists. The zeal with which neuroscientists such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris assert that we can derive guiding moral precepts from the scientific study of the human brain echoes the confidence of Comte and his first disciples. To think that a more sophisticated understanding of brain waves or biological evolution could provide the right blueprint for society, once and for all, seems as implausible now as it did in the nineteenth century.

If anything, Comte was more subtle than some of today’s positivists by refusing to reduce human nature to any one science in particular. Comte’s most vocal follower today is perhaps the French writer Michel Houellebecq, who decorates his novels with Comtean epigrams. At a conference on positivism, he argued with a straight face that when humankind finds a systematic way to satisfy its sexual urges, we will need Comte again to help us think about fulfilling our residual spiritual desires.

5.

Certainly, the works of Auguste Comte are not poised for any imminent revival. The salient lessons of his thought for scientific theorizing found more persuasive expression in Durkheim, who established sociology as an academic field, while his philosophy of history was quickly swept away by the Continental enthusiasm for Marx. Nevertheless, Pickering’s study offers two important suggestions. The first is that science alone has nearly always proven to be an inadequate source for our social values. The idea that our common morality ought to have scientific foundations is a holdover from the Enlightenment, which never entirely freed itself from the religious need to have human projects backed by an all-knowing authority.

By making a religion of science and inducting scientists into his priestly class, Comte can be seen to have highlighted the folly of this line of thought. His technocratic pretensions illustrate the hubris of any system that thinks it can do away with politics. Indeed, the reason Comte never really elaborated any political prescriptions is that he was convinced that when all men and women finally converted to positivism—and cleansed their minds of all theological and metaphysical residue—the result would automatically lead to the just organization of society and the state.

The second suggestion of Pickering’s book pertains to the nature of utopianism itself. Utopian movements, like their technocratic counterparts, sometimes inadvertently serve the interests of liberal politics. They are the source of radical new ideas that, though they often present them in the form of rigid doctrines, end up being pulled apart and taken on selectively by society at large.

Comte held many seemingly unconfirmable beliefs in his lifetime, but among those he held dearest was the concept of altruism: that we have an ingrained desire to further the well-being of others. Altruism has been the focus of intense scientific investigation at least since Darwin, who realized that behavior meant to benefit others—something observed not just in humans but in many animal species—was difficult to fit into his theory of natural selection. Researchers are still puzzled by the question of how altruism may have evolved, and especially by the extent to which it may have a genetic rather than a cultural basis in humans.2 Despite the condescending smiles Comte’s ideas now occasion, it is as if the great systematizer continues to demand satisfaction from the scientific establishment that long ago forgot him.

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    The Church of Humanity fared much better abroad. Comte’s books were the first European works translated into Japanese for the Meiji Emperor and reached as far as the court of Tsar Nicholas I. His ideas were well-known among Bengali intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century. Positivism’s greatest direct political impact was in Brazil, where a group of republicans—Benjamin Constant Botelho Magalhães, Miguel Lemos, and Raimundo Teixeira Mendes—used Comte as a guide to the modernization of the nation while keeping its Catholicism intact. The temple of humanity in Rio de Janeiro continues to hold services to this day. In 1903, Brazilian positivists erected the only Temple of Humanity still operational in Europe at 5, rue Payenne in Paris, two doors down from where Clotilde lived. 

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    For two good recent accounts of the scientific search for altruism, see Oren Harman’s The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (Norton, 2010) and Lee Alan Dugatkin’s The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness (Princeton University Press, 2006). 

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