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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.
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.
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…
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