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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Auguste Comte (1798–1857)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE NAME of Auguste Comte is associated with two such utterly conflicting systems, the “Positive Philosophy” and the “Positive Polity,” that the impression conveyed by his name is apt to be a rather confused one. Littré, Comte’s most distinguished disciple, takes no notice of his later speculations, attributing them to a nervous malady complicated by a violent passion for Madame de Vaux; while Carid, on the other hand, considers Comte’s return to metaphysical ideas the saving grace in his career. His conception of human knowledge, as defined in the Positive Philosophy, is in a measure the general property of the age. He developed the germs latent in the works of Turgot, Condorcet, and Kant, his immediate predecessors in the world of thought. Universality was the essential characteristic of his intellect, enabling him to penetrate profoundly into the domain of abstract science from mathematics to sociology.  1
  Auguste Comte was born at Montpellier on the 19th of January, 1798, and entered college at the age of nine years. Before attaining his fourteenth year he had already felt the need of fundamental reconstruction in politics and philosophy. This maturity is all the more remarkable that philosophical minds mature slowly. In 1814 he entered the Polytechnic School. When Louis XVIII. suppressed it, Comte, not having graduated, found himself without a career. At the age of twenty he came in contact with Saint-Simon, whose devoted disciple he became. The attraction mutually felt by them was due to their common conviction of the need of a complete social reform, based on a widespread mental renovation.  2
  There was now no place in the national system of education for free-thinkers, and Comte, cut off from all hope of employment in that direction, turned to private instruction for support. At the age of twenty-two, in a pamphlet entitled ‘System of Positive Polity,’ he announced his discovery of the laws of sociology. The work had no success, and Comte bent his energies during a meditation of twenty-four hours to the conception of a system which would force conviction on his readers. This he so far elaborated that in 1826 he published a plan of the work,—a plan requiring twelve years for its execution.  3
  As his ideas were being appropriated by other people, he now began a dogmatic exposition of Positivism in a course of lectures delivered in his own home. These lectures opened under encouraging auspices, but after the third, Comte’s mind gave way. The determining cause of this collapse lay in the excessive strain of his method of work, aided by a bad digestion and mental irritability growing out of the violent attacks made upon him by Saint-Simon’s followers. In 1827 he was sufficiently recovered to take up intellectual work again, and the following year he resumed his lectures at the point of their interruption. After the accession of Louis Philippe, Comte was appointed assistant teacher of mathematics at the Polytechnic, and later, examiner of candidates, while he taught in a private school.  4
  Unshakable firmness in philosophical matters and great disinterestedness were characteristic of this social critic, who cared nothing for the money his books might bring. His early sympathies were with the Revolution; he defended the socialist Marrast, though his position in a government school might have been compromised thereby. When in 1830 the Committee of the Polytechnic undertook to give free lectures to the people, he assumed the department of astronomy and lectured on that subject weekly for sixteen years.  5
  The second and great period of Comte’s life extends from his recovery in 1828 to the completion of his ‘Positive Philosophy’ in 1848; though what he calls his “second life” began after that. The intense satisfaction which he felt on the completion of that work became infatuation. He was no longer capable of judging his position sanely, and by his attacks antagonized the scientists.  6
  In 1842 John Stuart Mill gave his adherence to Positivism. When Comte lost his tutorship in the Polytechnic, and shortly after, his position as examiner, Mill raised a small sum for him in England. Afterward Littré organized a subscription, and this formed henceforth Comte’s sole resource. He now threw himself more completely than before into the problems of social life, elucidating them in his ‘Positive Polity,’ whose really scientific elements are almost crowded out of sight by a mass of extravagant theories.  7
  The Positive Calendar, in which the names of great men replace the saints of the Catholic Church, was adopted by Comte in his correspondence. He consecrated an altar to his friend Madame de Vaux, entitled himself High Priest of Humanity, married people, called his letters his briefs, administered the sacraments of his cult in commemoration of birth, the choice of a profession, marriage, etc. He subordinated the intellect to the feelings, wished to suppress independent thought, to center a dictatorship in a triumvirate of bankers, and to concentrate the entire spiritual power of the world in the hands of a single pontiff. He acquired a hatred of scientific and purely literary pursuits, and considered that men reasoned more than was good for them. Comte’s absolute faith in himself passes belief. He lauds the moral superiority of fetishism, pronounces the æsthetic civilization of the Greeks inferior to the military civilization of the Romans; is indifferent to proof, provided he attains theoretic coherency; and pushes his spiritual dictatorship to the length of selecting one hundred books to constitute the library of every Positivist, recommending the destruction of all other books, as also that of all plants and animals useless to man. He associates science with sentiment, endows the planets with feeling and will, calls the Earth “le grand fétiche,” includes all concrete existence in our adoration along with “le grand fétiche,” and names space “le grand milieu,” endowing the latter with feeling as the representative of fatality in general. Many of these conceits can be attributed to his ardor for regulating things in accordance with his peculiar conception of unity. He died in Paris at the age of fifty-nine years, on September 5th, 1857.  8
  Throughout life, Comte’s method of work was unprecedented. He thought out his subject in its entirety before writing down a word, proceeding from general facts to secondary matters, and thence to details. The general and detailed sketch outlined, he considered the work done. When he began to write, he took up his ideas in their respective order. His memory was wonderful; he did all his reading in his early youth, and the provision then amassed sufficed to elaborate a work for which he had to bear in mind an unusual number of scientific and historical facts. In consequence of his abstention from contemporary literature he became less and less in touch with the age, and missed the corrective force of friction with other minds.  9
  The word “religion,” when applied to Comte’s later speculations, must not be taken in its ordinary sense. His attitude towards theology was and continued to be purely negative. The obligation of duty was towards the human race as a continuous whole, to whose providence we owe all the benefits conferred by previous generations. If he has not succeeded in suppressing the Absolute, he has co-ordinated all the abstract sciences into one consistent system. Some of them he found ready to hand, and merely revised and rearranged in their philosophical relation, eliminating all non-positive elements. The first three volumes of the ‘Positive Philosophy’ are devoted to this task. The other three volumes, as well as the last two of the ‘Positive Polity,’ are dedicated to the solution of the problems of sociology unattempted until then. While they may not have solved these, they have a scientific value independent of any absolute results.  10
  The distinctive characteristic of Positivism is that it subjects all phenomena to invariable laws. It does not pretend to know anything about a future life, but believes that our ideas and intelligence will go to swell the sum total of spirituality, just as our bodies go to fertilize matter.  11
  The complaint has been made that there has been very little serious criticism of the ‘Positive Polity,’ which Comte regarded as the most original and important of his works. If the form in which he reproduces metaphysics and theology has any value, it is because he has come to see that they are based on perennial wants in man’s nature. In the ‘Positive Philosophy’ he excludes the Absolute; in the ‘Positive Polity’ he substitutes Humanity in lieu thereof; but his moral intention, however misguided at times, is passionately sincere, and his conviction that his mission was to exalt humanity through all time, sustained him during the course of a long life devoted to a generous ideal, fraught with disappointment, saddened by want of recognition and by persecution and neglect.  12
 
 
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