Andrew Bisset.

Essays on historical truth online

. (page 3 of 40)
Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 3 of 40)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

(according to M. Comte's description of physics) far more
than physical philosophers on the level of tlie astronomers
and geometers. In proof of this I will show in subse-
quent essays how much Hobbes and James Mill have
done to emanci]:)ate the Inunan mind from the state of
torpor in which it had remained for twenty centuries in
slavish subjection to Aristotle and Catholicism — both of
them especial favourites of M. Comte — and thence will
appear tlie utter groundlessness of M. Comte's charges as
to the metaphysicians dealing with ' entities ' or ' abstrac-
tions,' all the delusions and fictions of which have been
long ago completely cleared away.

I will mention here one of M. Comte's generalisations,
which shows at once his ignorance of modern metaphysics
and of the writings of Ilobbes. ' Kousseau's doctrine,
which represents a state of civilisation as an ever grow-
ing degeneracy from the primitive ideal type, is common
to all modern metaphysicians.' ^ I suppose Hobbes w^ould
be included among M. Comte's ' modern metaphysicians,'
and Hobbes' well-known description of the primitive type
in which there are no arts, no letters, no society, and — which
is worst of all — continual war, and danger of violent death ;
and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and
short,' gives a flat contradiction to M. Comte's assertion.

M. Comte calls England's parliamentary monarchy ' an
exceptional institution, whose inevitable end cannot be

^ Comte, ii. 19. ^ Ilobbes's Leviatluui; part i. c!iap. xiii.


very far off;' and 'an organised Protestantism, which is
its main spiritual basis in England.'^ This proves M.
Comte's profound ignorance of Enghsh history. He
appears to imagine that parhamentary government in
Ensland dates from the Eeformation. He inveighs also
against Utopias, while he proposes the wildiest Utopia.
He says : ' After all the vast efibrts to nationalise elsewhere
the stationary compromise ' [his term for parliamentary
government],' it has never succeeded anywhere but in its
native land ; and this proves its powerlessness in regard to
the great social problem.'^ It has succeeded in America,
and in France it has never had a fair trial. M. Comte,
in his characteristic way, thus speaks of constitutional or
parliamentary government, which he is pleased to include
among what he styles ' puerile questions of political
forms.' ^

' It is strange that minds should be so self-deceived as
to disclaim all speculative prejudices, while they propose
the most absurd of all poUtical Utopias — the construc-
tion of a system of government which rests upon no true
social doctrine. Such an absurdity is referrible to the
cloudy prevalence of the metaphysical pliilosophy, which
perverts and confuses men's notions in politics, as it did
formerly, during its short triumph, in all other orders of
human conceptions.' *

M. Comte could not pay a higher comphment to the
metaphysical philosophy than to ascril^e to it the construc-
tion of constitutional government ; though it is a compli-
ment to which its title may be disputed.

Another of M. Comte's dogmas is in opposition to an

1 Comte, ii. 2G. * I^id. ii. 27.

3 Ibid. ii. 37. " Ii>id. ii. 37.


opinion of Turgot, wlio, according to his biograplicr Con-
dorcet, would say, ' Why have good morals existed among
no people on the face of the earth ? It is because none
has had good laws.' But M. Comte, in accordance with
the ancient saying ' Quid vanaj sine moribus leges pro-
ficient ? ' has a great deal of verbiage to tlie effect that
' ideas and social manners ' are more important than in-
stitutions ; also that ' doctrines are more important than
institutions ' — meaning, of course, his own doctrines.

Again, he says, ' For three centuries past the most
eminent minds have been chiefly engaged with science,
and have neglected politics ; thus differing widely from
the wisest men in ancient times, and even in tlie Middle

A statement more the reverse of fact was never made.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the wisest men of Greece,
were not engaged in politics ; and if, among the Eomans
Cicero be ranked as a philosopher — which he hardly was,
being a writer rather than a thinker — no men in ancient
times engaged in politics were as much philosophers as
Bacon and Turgot, who both come within M. Comte's
' three centuries past.'

M. Comte says : ' The best way of proving that my
principle of social development will ultimately regenerate
social science, is to show that it affords a perfect inter-
pretation of the past of human society — at least in its
principal phases.'

The answer to this is, that M. Comte does not know
the past. He may give an interpretation of an imaginary
past. This he does. But such interpretation proves

^ Comto, ii. 40. - Ibid. ii. 181.


nothing — or nothing more than Montesquieu's hypotheses,
supported on fables as authentic as ' GulUver's Travels.'

M. Comte says : ' It is the commonest sort of facts that
are most important.' ^ Again : ' In this department of
science, as in every other, the commonest facts are the
most important. In oiu: search for the laws of society,
we shall find that exceptional events and minute details
must be discarded as essentially insignificant, while science
lays hold of the most general phenomena which every-
body is familiar with, as constituting the basis of ordinary
social life. It is true popular prejudice is against this
method of study ; in the same way that physics were till
lately studied in thunder and volcanoes, and biology in
monstrosities : and there is no doubt that a reformation
in our ignorant intellectual habits is even more necessary
in sociologj^ than in regard to any of the other sciences.' ^

Let us now see what M. Comte brings forward as ' the
commonest facts ' — ' the most general phenomena which
everybody is familiar with.'

M. Comte says that among savages ' the wisdom of
the aged performs the ofiice of transmitting the experience
and the traditions of the tribe, and soon acquires a con-
sultative power, even among populations whose means of
subsistence are so precarious and insufficient as to require
the mournful sacrifice of decrepit relations.' ^

This passage, particularly the words I have underhned,
may be taken as an average specimen of the accuracy of
the so-caUed facts out of which M. Comte spins his
' positive philosophy.' The two circumstances he men-
tions belong to two different stages of barbarism. The
first, the acquisition of a consultative power by the aged,

• Comte, ii. 98. ^ jj^^, jj, ]82. 3 Ibid. ii. 222.


belongs to tlic stage represented by Homer in tlie ' Iliad,'
and exemplified in Nestor. The second belongs to the
stage of barbarism in which the Zulu Kafirs are depicted
by recent travellers as being — a state of barbarism where
a Nestor could not be found, but where the aged were
sometimes destroyed because they were no longer of use,
and were considered a burthen. Building theories on
such imaginary facts is only like spinning ropes of sand.

It is somewhat curious that though M. Conite by no
means admires or approves of the theological stage in the
history of the human mind, he nevertheless appears to
admire greatly what he terms ' the fine theocratic natures
of early antiquity.'' Indeed what Hobbes has said of
witches, that ' their trade was nearer to a new religion
than to a craft or science,' may be applied to M. Comte
as well as to Joe Smith, that the ' positive philosophy '
was merely a name for a new theocracy of which M.
Comte was to be the high-priest. So that the human
mind, under the guidance of M. Comte, after passing
through the old theological stage, and the metaphysical,
to tlie ' positive,' was to find that it had only got back
to the point whence it started, and was returning to
Egyptian or Hindu petrefaction under the theocracy of
M. Comte, who thus expatiates on ' the fine theocratic
natures of early antiquity ' : —

' Witliin, all the castes were united by the single bond
of their common subordination to the sacerdotal caste, from
which each derived all that it had of special knowledge
and perpetual instigation. There never was elsewhere
such a concentration, for intensity, regularitj^ and per-
manence of human power, as that possessed by tiie
supreme caste, each member of which (at least, in the

30 i:ssArs on historical truth.

higher ranks of the priesthood) was not only priest and
magistrate, but also philosopher, artist, engineer, and
physician. The statesmen of Greece and Eome, superior
as they were in accomplishment and generality to any
examples that modern times can show, appear but
incomplete personages in comparison with the fine theo-
cratic natures of early antiquity.' ^

Against this dictum of M. Comte, in support of which he
brings no evidence whatever, place the evidence adduced
by men who were really philosophers as well as scrupulous
and laborious collectors and investigators of facts — men
wlio did not, as so many have done, write history and make
their facts as they went along, but submitted to the
labour of searching for facts, which though of the utmost
importance were so far from being, as M. Comte asserts,
* phenomena with which every body is familiar,' that they
appear to be quite miknown to M. Comte, omniscient as
he represents himself.

James Mill, in his 'History of British India' says : — ' The
admiration which the Greeks, no very accurate observers
of foreign manners, expressed of the Egyptians, and which
other nations have so implicitly borrowed at their hands,
not a little resembles the admiration among Europeans
which has so long prevailed with regard to the Hindus.
The penetrating force of modern intelligence has pierced
the cloud ; and while it has displayed to us the state of
Egyptian civilisation in its true colours, exhibits a people
who, standing on a level with so many celebrated nations
of antiquity — Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Arabians —
correspond, in all the distinctive marks of a particular state

1 Comte, ii. 239.


of society, with tlie people of TTindustan.' ^ And, in addition
to Goguet's ' Origin of Laws,' Mill cites Gibbon as to the
exaggerated nonsense on the civilisation of the Egyptians ;^
as he has himself exposed the exaggerated nonsense and
gross falsehoods respecting the civilisation of the; Hindus.
The President Goguet, after having carefidly and dis-
passionately weighed it, thus sums up tlie evidence re-
specting those ' fine theocratic natures of early antiquity '
eulogised so extravangantly by M. Comte. ' It appears
to me to result from all these facts that the Egyptians
were a people industrious enough, but, as to the rest,
without discernment ; a people who had only ideas of
grandeur ill understood ; and whose progress in all the
different parts of human knowledge never rose beyond a
flat mediocrity ; knavish into the bargian, and crafty,
soft, lazy, cowardly, and submissive ; and who, having
performed some exploits to boast of in distant times, were
ever after subjected by whoever would undertake to
subdue them ; a people, again, vain and foolish enough to
despise other nations without knowing them ; superstitious
to excess, singularly addicted to judicial astrology, extra-
vagantly besotted, with an absurd and monstrous
theology. Does not this representation sufficiently au-
thorise us to say that all that science, that wisdom, and
that philosophy, so boasted of in the Egyptian priests, was
but imposture and juggling, capable of imposing only on
people so little enlightened, or so strongly prejudiced, as
were anciently the Greeks in fiivour of the Egyptians.''
He adds, ' I should be greatly tempted to compare this
nation with the Chinese.' On which James Mill has this

1 ^Mill's History of British India, vol. ii. p. 202, .3rd edition, London, 182G.

' Ihid. p. 204, note.

^ Goguet, Origin of Laws, part iii. book vi. chap. ii.


note : — ' Had the Hindus been then as fully described as
they are now, he would have found a much more
remarkable similarity between them and the Egyptians.'
]\Iill adds, ' Exaggeration was long in quitting its hold of
Egypt.' It has not yet quitted its hold ; if it had, we
should not hear at this time of day the words ' fine theo-
cratic natures ' applied to jugglers and impostors.

M. Comte is so enamoured of the jugglers and impos-
tors whom he desis^nates as ' fine theocratic natures ' that
he proceeds to generalise the conditions of their produc-
tion. ' These conditions,' he says, ' are best found in the
valley of a great river, separated from the rest of the
world by the sea on the one hand, and inaccessible
deserts or mountains on the other.' This is an instruc-
tive example of M. Comte's method of forming his
generalisations. He takes Egypt and forms his genera-
lisation as to the physical geography of the regions fertile
in ' fine theocratic natures ' from that one case, serving as
an induction of cases. He does, indeed, also mention
Chaldsea and Hindostan, which may be said to possess the
condition of the valley of a great river, but hardly that
of the inaccessible deserts. He thus proceeds : * Thus
the great system of castes flourished first in Egypt,
Chald^ea, and Persia ; and it abides in our day in those
parts of the East which are least exposed to contact with
the white nations, as in China, Japan, Tibet, Hindostan,
&c. ; and, from analogous causes, it was found in Mexico
and Peru at the time of their conquest.'

It is not easy to see how by the term ' analogous
causes ' Mexico and Peru can be brought under the

^ IMill's History of British India, vol. ii. p. 204, note.
2 Coiute, ii. 237.


same conditions of physical geography with Egypt. We
may see from tliis liow closely this writer follows the
method of philosophising of Montesquieu, whose works
he characterises as ' the first and most important series of
works ' after Aristotle, ])articularly his ' Spirit of Laws,'
of which he says : — ' The great strength of this memo-
rable work appears to me to lie in its tendency to
regard political phenomena as subject to invariable laws,
like all other phenomena. This is manifested at the
very outset, in the preliminary chapter, in which, for the
first time in the history of the human mind, the general
idea of laiv is directly defined in relation to all, even to
political subjects, in the same sense in which it is ap-
plied in the simplest positive investigations.' ^

This extravagant eulogy is strange, applied as it is to
the complete confusion of ideas exhibited in Montesquieu's
attempt to define lajr. The following is the first sentence
in Montesquieu's ' Spirit of Laws : ' ' Les lois, dans la
signification la plus etendue, sont les rapports necessaires
qui derivent de la nature des choses, et dans ce sens tous
les etres ont leurs lois : la Divinite a ses lois, le monde
materiel a ses lois, les intelligences superieures a I'homme
ont leurs lois, les betes ont leurs lois, I'homme a ses lois.'

Bentham has thus characterised this passage of Mon-
tesquieu. : —

' Montesquieu lui-meme est tombe dans ce vice de
raisonnement, des le debut de son ouvrage. Voulant
definir la loi, il procede de metaphore en metaphore : il
rapproche les objets les plus disparates, la Divinite, le
monde materiel, les intelligences superieures, les betes et
les hommes. On apprend enfin que les lois sont des

' Comte, ii. 5G.


rapports^ ei des rapports eternels. Ainsi la definition est
plus obscure que la chose h definir. Le mot loi^ dans le
sens propre, fait naitre une idee passablement claire dans
tous les esprits ; le mot rapport n'en fait naitre aucune.
Le mot hi, dans le sens figure, ne produit que des equi-
voques, et Montesquieu, qui devait dissiper ces tenebres,
les redouble.' ^

The character of laws, properly so called, is that they
are rules or commands which govern the conduct of
rational creatures. ' But the so-called laws which
govern the material world, with the so-called laws which,
govern the lower animals, are merely laws by a metaphor.
.... To mix these figurative laws with laws imperative
and proper, is to obscure, and not to elucidate, the nature
or essence of the latter. The beginning of the passage is
worthy of the sequel. We are told that laws are the
necessary relations which flow from the nature of things.
But what, I would crave, are relations.^ What, I would
also crave, is the nature of things? And how do the
necessary relations which flow from the nature of things
differ from those relations which originate in other sources ?
The terms of the definition are incomparably more ob-
scure than the term which it affects to expound.' ^
■ It seems a little strange that M. Comte, who affects in
certain matters to set much value on rationality, should
in his exaggerated profession of admiration for this
unintelligible jargon of Montesquieu appear to desire to
confound rational creatures with irrational matter. This,

1 Bentham, Principes de Legislation, cliap. xiii. iu Traites de Legislation
civile et p^nale ; extraits des manuscrits de Jeremie Bentham. Par Et.

'■^ The Province of Jurisprudence Determined ; by John Austin, Esq., Bar-
rister-at-Law : London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1832, pp. 191, 192.


however, may be a part of liis system, whicli, among other
objects, asserts tlie riglit of spiritual domination — of a
theocratic, despotism, wliich would reduce human beings
to the level of irrational matter or brutes. When that
has been accomplished, tlie absurdity of his admiration of
Montesquieu's definition of law might disappear.

If men even of great abilities have failed, as has been
said by Blackstone,^ in point of accuracy in the attempt
to write a general and complete history of England, they
must a fortiori fail in the attempt to write a general
history of the world, and even in the attempt to do what
Montesquieu has attempted in his ' Spirit of Laws ; ' and
also in such an attempt as that of M. Comte in what he
calls ' Social Physics.' It maybe inferred, from what has
been said in regard to the first sentence of Montesquieu's
' Spirit of Laws,' that Montesquieu, though styled by
M. Comte ' this great philosopher,' was not a man of
great abilities. M. Comte, however, exalts him for his
demerits, for his confusion of ideas, his shallowness, and
his inaccuracy as to historical facts ; and depreciates him
for his merits, for his seeing the value of representative
government ; for his seeing that, from ignorance of ' the
divine principle of representation,' ^ all the attempts of
the ancient philosophers and statesmen to obtain good
government had failed ; and for his consequently * setting
up, as a universal political type, the English parliamentary

* See Blackstone's Introduction to his edition of Magna Charta, in his
Tracts, pp. ?,'y2, '?>~t'?>, 3rd edition, 4to. Oxford, 1771.

"^ ' Plato, seeing the necessity of identifying the interests of the guardians
with the interests of the guarded, bent the whole force of his penetrating
mind to discover the means of effecting such identification; but being ignorant,
as all the ancients were, of the divine principle of representation, found him-
self obliged to have recourse to extraordinary methods.' — Junies Mill's Yraij-
ment on Mackintosh, p. 289.


system.' ^ M. Comte adds, ' the insufficiency of wliich,
for the satisfaction of modem social requirements, was
not, it is true, so conspicuous in his day as it is now, but
still discernible enough.' If Montesquieu made a mistake
in setting up the English parliamentary system as a
universal political type, his blunder is slight compared
with that of M. Comte in absolutely pronouncing its
total insufficiency for the satisfaction of modern social
requirements. Mr. J. S. Mill, in the fourth chapter of
his ' Considerations on Eepresentative Government,' has
examined fully ' under what social conditions representa-
tive government is inapplicable ; ' while the preceding
chapter of the same work is devoted to showing ' that the
ideally best form of government is representative govern-

Eut while M. Comte has made Montesquieu's appro-
bation of the Enghsh parliamentary system a great fault
and shortcoming attributable to Montesquieu's not en-
joying the blessings of the ' Positive Philosophy ' of
M. Comte, and not possessing the vast power of analysis
and generalisation by which M. Comte, like Epicurus and
Newton, genus humanum ingenio superavit ; he has found
no fault whatever with Montesquieu's false generalisations,
founded on facts such as M. Comte has used so hberally
in the construction of his ' Philosophy.' The words used
by Lord Macaulay of Montesquieu may be applied with
equal truth to M. Comte. 'If nothing established by
authentic testimony can be racked or chipped to suit his
Procrustean hypothesis, he puts up with some monstrous
fable about Siam, or Bantam, or Japan, told by writers

' Comte, ii. 57.


compared with wliom Lucian and Gulliver were veracious ;
liars by a double riglit, as travellers and as Jesuits.' ^

I may add here that M. Comte's knowledge of Grecian
history is quite on a level with his knowledge of Egyptian.
He speaks of a state of things of ' the ancient times,
when the Greek philosophy was about to make way for
the Christian regeneration of the family and of society,
and when fantastical errors, caused by the long intellec-
tual interregnum, gave occasion to the famous satire of
Aristophanes, whicli we may accept as a nide relmke for
our own licentiousness.' ''^

What does he mean by ' intellectual interregnum ? '
He does not seem to know that Aristophanes was the
contemporary of Socrates, and may be, without almost
any inaccuracy, also called the contemporary of Plato and
Aristotle, since Plato was the friend of Socrates and
Aristotle was the pupil of Plato ^ whereas the words
used by M. Comte, ' long intellectual interregnum,' would
imply that he imagined Aristophanes to have lived three
or foiu" centuries after Socrates. These surely are among
' the commonest facts.' And M. Comte thus appears to
be quite ignorant even of the ' commonest facts,' which
are, he says, necessary for his ' historical analysis,' Ac-
cording to his own showing, then, he wants the materials
for an ' historical analysis.'

M. Comte says that the attempt of Montesquieu, and
another attempt of Condorcet — a writer, except in his
' Life of Turgot,' quite as untrustworthy as Montesquieu —
' are really all that have been made in the right road to
social science, for they are the only speculations which

* 3Iac<aulay's Essay on Machiavelli.
^ Comte, ii. 135.


have been based on the aggregate of historical facts.' ^
This statement would have come nearer the truth if he
had said instead of ' aggregate of historical facts,' ' aggre-
gate of historical fictions.'

, M. Comte, after passing a eulogy on Bossuet's ' Dis-
course on Universal History,' describing it as ' a model
sucro-estinff the true result of historical analysis ' [every-
thing is ' analysis ' with M. Comte], ' the rational co-
ordination ' [' co-ordination ' is another of his fine misty
phrases] ' of the great series of human events, according
to a single design ; which must, however, be more genuine
and complete than that of Bossuet,' goes on thus : — ' Still
history has more of a literary and descriptive than of a
scientific character. It does not yet establish a rational
filiation in the series of social events, so as to admit (as
in other sciences, and allowing for its greater complexity)
of any degree of systematic prevision of their future
succession.' ^

It is instructive to observe the result in M. Comte of
that ' degree of systematic prevision of the future suc-
cession of events,' which was necessary to estabhsh his
science of social physics or sociology. His version of
what he calls 'the aggregate of historical facts,' seems to
have led him to the ' prevision ' of a resurrection of the
'fine theocratic natures of early antiquity,' when the
great mass of mankind were the absolute slaves or dupes
of an organized confederacy of jugglers and impostors.

Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 3 of 40)