Auguste Comte.

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"If it cann(»t be said of Comte that lie has created a science, it
may l)e said truly that he has, for the first time, made the creation
possible. This is a great achievement, and, with the extraordinary
merit of his historical analysis, and of his philosophy of the phy-
sical sciences, is enough to immortalize his name." — John Stuart

"Comte is now geiieially admitted to have been the most emi-
nent and impf)rtant of tiiat iiiteresting groujt of thinkers whom
the overthrow of old institutions in France turned towards social
speculations." — John Morley.

THE foregoing- quotations f]-om the two English
authorities who have most severely criticized the
" Positive Polity " of Auguste Comte, bear witness to
the profound imj^ulse given to modern thought by the
publication of the " Positive Philosophy," more than half
a century ago. Miss Martineau's condensation appeared
eleven years later, during the lifetime of Comte and before
the completion of his later works. It was warmly
welcomed by the philosopher himself, and adopted by him
as the popular form of his own voluminous treatise.
Since that time an immense amount of discussion has
arisen about the philosophy itself, about the subsequent
development of Comte's own career and sj^eculations, and
on the incidents of his strenuous life. In placing before
the public Miss Martineau's version of the " Philosophie
Positive " in a new form, it seems a fitting occasion to in-
troduce it by some notice of Comte's own life and labours,



as well as by some account of that which he called his
"fundamental work," and of the very remarkable version
by which Harriet Martineau gave it a new literary form.

Auguste Comte Avas born at Montpellier, in the south of
France. 19th Jan., 1798, the eldest son of Louis Comte,
treasurer of taxes for the department of Hcrault, and of
Rosalie Boyer, whose family produced some eminent
l)hysicians. Both father and mother were sincere Catholics
and ardent royalists. Their son was christened Isidore
Auguste Marie Francois Xavier. The house in which he
was born is still to be seen opposite the church of Sainte
Eulalie. At the age of nine, a small and delicate child, he
was placed as a boarder in the Lycee of his native city.
He soon showed extraordinary intelligence and industry,
a character of singular coui*age and resolution, and a spirit
of defiance towards religious and civil authority. He re-
fused to conform to any worship, and avowed an open
hatred of Napoleon and his schemes of conquest. Anec-
dotes are still told of his prodigious memory ; he could
repeat a hundred verses after a single recital, and could
recite backwards the words of a page that he had once
read. He carried off all prizes, and at the age of fourteen
and a half lie had passed through the entire course of
the Lycee. He then studied mathematics under Daniel
Encontre, a teacher of great ability, whose place he was
able to take in his fifteenth year. At the age of sixteen he
passed in the Ecole Pojyfech/ilque, the first on the list of
candidates for the south and centime of France.

In October, 1814, the young Comte, then in his seven-
teenth year, entered the great college at Paris, and there
applied himself with his usual energy to mathematics and
physics under the illustrious Poinsot. He was called " the
philosopher," and took the lead amongst his fellow pupils
by his energy as well as his abilities. He was known as
an ardent republican, a fierce opponent of tyranny, whether


theological, political, or academic. In 1816, one of the
tutors having given offence to the younger pupils, Comte
took the lead in demanding his resignation, and drew up a
curt memorial to this effect. The college was sent down,
and Comte, who was only in his second year of residence,
as the author of the insurrection, was sent home to his
despairing parents and placed under the surveillance of
the police, with his hopes of a future career entirely

For some time he studied biology in the medical school of
Montpellier, but in September, 1816, being then eighteen,
he returned to Paris with the brave intention of suj)port-
ing himself l\v lessons. He now dropped the mediaeval
name of Isidore by which he had been known from infancy,
and took his Roman baptismal name of Auguste. In the
following year he was introduced to Saiut-Simou, with
whom he remained in relations for four or five years. The
vague, optimistic, aud humanitarian dreams of this singular
reformer did undoubtedly exercise a certain fascination
over the youthful mind oi Comte, and gave his genius aud
character an iuHexible bent towards a scheme of social
reorganization. But the shallowness of Saint-Simon's
acquirements could not impart anything of a solid kind to
such a mind as Comte's ; and the vanity and charlatanry
of the famous socialist alienated his young follower. They
soon came into direct opposition on Saint-Simon's con-
tention that intellectual aud moral re-organization could
only proceed from the authority of government. Saint-
Simon claimed as liis own the work of his youfig colleague,
and when he fell back on a mystical theologism, the
rupture became final.

Auguste Comte wrote a few pieces for various periodicals
in Paris, to which he attached but little importance. His
first great philosophical woi'k was a pamphlet in 191
pages, published in May. 1822, with an introduction by


Saint-Simon. It was entitled a " Prospectus of the
scientific works required for the reorganization of Society,
by Auguste Comte, former pnpil of the Ecole Polytechniqne."
He republished his pamphlet witli some small modifica-
tions and additions in 1824, under the title " System of
Positive Polity," and this is reprinted in vol. iv. of the
" Politique Positive," 1854. A full account and the text of
both editions is given in the " Revue Oceidentale " (1895,
vol. xi. p. 1). This essay of 1822 contains a statement of
the classification of the sciences, of the law of the three
states, and the suggestion of a science of sociology. It is
in truth the prospectus of "^that Avhich for thirty years
Comte continued to elaborate. It has not the smallest
connection with Saint-Simon, nor with contemporary
socialism or mysticism, and has always l>een treated by
Comte and by his adherents as the the first sketch of the
" Positive Philosophy."

Between 1816 and 1826 (jetat. 18 to 28) Comte
laboured and read with extraordinary energy, frequently
absorbed for twenty -four hours at a stretch, and writing
all through the night. By his essay of 1822 and one or
two other pieces in the " Producteur." 1825-26. he had won
the favourable opinion of many eminent men of science
and literature. Amongst these are mentioned Delambre,
Fourier, Blainville, Bonniu, Poinsot. Carnot. Guizot. J. B.
Say, Dnnoyer, Professor Buchholtz of Berlin, de VillMe.
Lamennais. For a few weeks he was private secretary to
Casimir-Perier, but his independent spirit declined to
accept the duties required. In April, 1826 (fetat. 28). he
opened iu his own rooms a course of jtublic leetiu'es on the
Positive Philosophy, which was to extend to seventy-two
lectures, from 1st April, 1826. to 1st April, 1827. Amongst
his audience were such men as Broussais, Blainville,
Poinsot, J. Fourier, Alexander von Humboldt, D'Eichthal,
Montebello, Carnot, son of the famous yeneral, Cerclet,


Montgerv, and other young students. The series was in
fact that which was subsequently published. At the
fourth lecture the course was abrviptly broken off. Intense
mental strain, together with domestic misery, brought on
an attack of insanity. He left his home in a state of dis-
traction, and was placed in an asylum by his friend
Broussais. There he remained for seven months.

The devotion of his mother and his wife, who took him
from the care of Dr. Esquii'ol whilst still suffering from
the disease, succeeded in gradually restoring his reason.
An epoch of profound despair followed, during which he
threw himself into the Seine, but was rescued ; and thence-
forth he resolved to devote himself with patience and
resignation to the work of his life, supporting himself
with private lessons. In January, 1829, he resumed his
course of lectures on the Positive Philosojjhy, and he had
the satisfaction of seeing the same eminent men amongst
his audience, with the excepti(m of Humboldt, who Avas no
longer in France. On this occasion he completed the
whole series of lectures, and in December, 1829, he re-
peated them in a public coi;rse at the Athetiee. He also
gave other gratuitous public lectures, including the series
on Popular Astronomy whicii he repeated during eighteen
years, from 1830 to 1848. In 1832, Comte was apj^ointed
repetiteur of analytic mathematics at the Ecole Poly-
technique, at the instance of M. Navier, then professor
there ; and in 1837 he was named examiner of the > andi-
dates for admission. For a short time he filled the place
of the Professor.

The work of which these three volumes are a condensa-
tion was published at intervals from 1830 to 1842. The
first volume, containing the Introduction and the philo-
sophy of Mathematics, was published sejmrately, with
a dedication to Baron Fourier and M. de Blainville. A
brief note described it as the result of the author's labours


from the year 1816, and as a development of the new ideas
put forth in his early essay of 1822, entitled a " System
of Positive Polity." The second volume, comprising
Astronomy and Physics, did not appear until 1835, owing
to the commercial disasters of the Revolution of July.
The third volume, comprising Chemistry and Biology,
appeared in 1838. The new science of Sociology, which
was intended to he comprised in a single volume, ulti-
mately extended to three volumes, published in 1839, 1841,
and 1842. The last volume, containing nearly a thousand
pages, was introduced by a personal preface to explain the
prolongation of the work over twelve years, and the
grounds for devoting one half of the entire work to the
new Social Science. And it contained in notes Comte's
vehement repvidiation of Saint-Simon, and his do less
vehement condemnation of M. Arago and the official
directors of the Ecole Poly technique.

M. Littrc has described, with the knowledge of intimacy
and the warmth of a disciple, the colossal task which
Comte had now brought to a conclusion. " Twelve years
had passed," he says, ^ during which his life had been
closed against any kind of disti'action. No wish for pre-
mature publication was suffered to lead his mind oft' the
conscientious completion of his task. No ambition of
gaining popularity was allowed to modify a single line in
conformity with the opinions of the time. With stern
resolution, and deaf to all external distractions, he con-
centrated his whole soul upon his Avork. In the history of
men who have devoted their lives to great thoughts, I
know nothing nobler than that of these twelve years." '
There was indeed nothing exceptional in these twelve
years. Precisely the same may be said of the whole forty
years of Comte's life from the time of his leaving the
college, at the age of eighteen, until his death in 1857.

' " Auguste Conite, et la Philosopliie Positive," 1863, p. 188.


His method, of coraposition was unique and has been
dwelt upon by all his biographers. His marvellous
memory and power of mental concentration enabled him
to think out an entire volume in all its parts, plan, sub-
divisions, ideas, arguments, and details, without putting a
word to paper. When this was completed, he regarded
the work as ready. His courses of lectures were all
delivered without writing. When he commenced to pre-
pare them for the press, he simply wrote them down from
memory with great rapidity, composing the matter as fast
as the sheets were printed, and without altering the proofs.
For example, the first chapter of the sixth volume consists
of 343 octavo j>ages and was written in twenty-eight days,
althougli its mental elaboration was the outcome of years
of meditation. As M. Littrc remarks, this method of
composition was only possible to abnormal powers, and it
secured an extraordinary unity of conception and organic
symmetry of plan. But it had the obvious disadvantages
of a certain multiplicity of phrase, a monotony, and that
repetition which is only proper to oral exposition. These
defects have been universally imputed to the written style
of Comte, who has shown that on occasions he could rise
into dignity and 23athos, or illumine his discourse with a
profound epigram or even a brilliant sally. But habitually
and on system, he suppressed any such gifts, and uniformly
cast his philosophic thoughts into a very formal, artificial,
and undoubtedly cumbrous style which he elaborated for
himself and which gi-adually became a confirmed man-

Tedious and even repidsive as it is to the average
reader, to the serious student of Positivism this method
of exposition has rare and paramount advantages. It is
unerringly precise, lucid, qualified, and suggestive. Comte
certainly had nothing of the literary genius of Bossuet and
Voltaire, Hume and Berkeley. But his long-drawn and


over-elaborated sentences never leave the student in doubt
for a moment as to his meaning, as to his whole meaning,
as to all that he wishes to express, and all that he means
to disclaim or exclude. The result is, that the genei'al
reader can hardly follow these crowded and closely welded
paragraphs without the assistance of an expert, whilst the
serious student of the Positive Philosophy finds some new
light or some needful warning in everyone of these
pregnant epithets and precise limitations. Comte saw this
clearly himself ; and hence, in his " Popular Library,"
embodied in his later works, he inserts — not his own
" Positive Philosophy " in six volumes — but Miss Marti-
neau's condensed English version. Unfortunately not
only the general reader, but the professed critics of
Positivism have too ofteu adopted his generous sug-

" The Philosojihie Positive " as a whole received an
earlier and more open welcome in England than in France.
Sir David Brewster, the eminent physicist, a strong oppo-
nent of Positivism as a religious and social philosophy,
reviewed the first two volumes in the " Edinburgh Review,"
(No. 136, 1838, vol. Ixvii., p. 271). In this essay, which is
far from being the work of a partisan or even a friend,
Brewster pays homage to the depth and sagacity of
Comte's mind, and he accepts in principle the law of the
Three States, the Classification of the Sciences, and the
ultimate extension of the methods of Science to Sociology.
Mr. Mill followed in his " System of Logic," 1843, in
which he spoke of Auguste Comte as amongst the first of
European thinkers, and by his institution of a new social
science, as in some respects, the first. In 1845-6, George
Henry Lewes published his " Biographical History of
Philosophy," enlarged in 1857, 1867, 1870. and 1880, in
which he treated of Auguste Comte as " the greatest of
modern thinkers," and as crowning the general history


of ijbilosophical evolution. lu 1853, Lewes published
Comte's " Philosophy of the Sciences," a volume in
Bohn's Philosophical Library. And in the same year Miss
Martineau published the condensed translation which at
once made Comte familiar to all English students. This
has been translated into French by M. Avezac-Lavigne,
and has passed through more than one edition. It is a
singular fact in literary history, and a striking testimony
to the merit of Miss Martineau, that the work of a French
philosopher should be studied in France in a French re-
translation from his English translator — and that at his
own formal desire and by his own special followers.

An interesting account of Miss Martineau's own labours
on the translation may be found in her " Autobiography
and Letters" (2nd edition, 1877, vol. ii., p. 385, etc., etc.).
The work appeared fiually, after some interruptions, in the
beginning of November, 1853, and it was received with a
chorus of approval by the French philosopher and by bis
English readers. Comte's own opinion is set forth in the
letters of his printed by M. Littrc in his biographical work,
to which we shall presently return. George Grrote, the
historian, wrote to Miss Martineau : " Not only is it ex-
tremely well done, but it could not be better done." The
French translation of Miss Martineau's condensation by
M. .\vezac-Lavigne, a Bordeaux disciple of Comte, appeared
in May, 1871. The correspondence between him and Miss
Martineau is set out in the " Autobiographv " (vol. iii.,
p. 310;.

The outspoken language of the " personal preface " to
the sixth volume of the " Philosoijhie " brought down upon
Comte even severer sufferings than either he or his friends
had anticipated. He was deprived first of one, then of
both his official posts, was treated as an outcast from the
academic world, and was reduced to absolute penury. But
in August, 1842, just before the actual publication of the


sixth volume, liis wife carried out the intention which she
had long meditated and announced, and insisted on a
separation. The story of Comte's married life is full of
interest and of tragedy, but it is too intricate, and still too
much disputed, to be here fully told. The case of Madame
Comte has been presented by M. Littre in the work cited
above, and the case of Auguste Comte has been recently
set forth by M. Lonchampt, one of his executors, in the
"Revue Occidentale" (vol xxii., p. 271 ; and vol. xxiii.,
pp. 1, 135). As a young man of twenty-three, Comte
casually fell in with a certain Caroline Massin, a young
Parisian, of a degraded past life, of singular intelligence,
with gi'eat ambition, and many fascinating gifts. He felt
for her affection and pity, took her under his protection,
and ultimately married her. In spite of real affection on
his side, real admiration on hers, long-suffering self-
control on his ])art, and some fitful acts of self-devotion on
her part, their union became unhappy, and at last intoler-
able. She never learned either to love her husband or to
respect her own position as a wife. His entire absorption
in his work, and his defiance of the academic and literary
world, and all that it had to offer, alienated her selfish
nature; she left him more than once, and, on the com-
pletion of the polemical preface to vol. vi., she left him for
ever, after seventeen years of married life. They continued
to correspond for some years ; but separation ultimately
passed into mutual estrangement and bitter feeling. In
his last will he spoke of her with poignant reproaches, the
pround of which has now been divulged, and he described
his marriage as the one great error of his life.

It is not proposed in this brief introduction to Miss
Martineau's work to enlarge on the subsequent life and the
later works of Auguste Comte. By the intervention of
Mr. Mill, three Englishmen, Mr. Grote, Mr. Raikes Currie,
and Sir W. Molesworth, provided, in 1844, the salary of


d£200 of which he was dejjrived ; but to the surprise, and
even the indignation, of Conite, they declined to make this
permanent. Mr. Grote and other friends made some
further contributions ; and ultimately, by the help of M.
Littrc, Dr. Charles Robin, Dr. Seg-onc], and others, a
regular subsidy was established in 1849. It began with
8,000 francs (^120), idtimately rose to 8,000 francs (^6320),
and it has been continued until the pi-esent time, in order
to carry out the purposes of the last will. On this pittance
Comte lived until his death, absorbed in his philosophic
work, and continuing the allowance to his wife. He
adopted an almost ascetic life, avoiding the use of alcohol,
coffee, tobacco, and all stimulants, limiting his food bv
weight to the minimum of two meals per diem, one of
these being of bread and milk only. During a few years
his income had been d8400, Init for the greater part of his
life it had fallen much below this amount. There can be
no question that his whole career was one of the niost
intense concentration of mind, gigantic industry, rigid
economy, and singular punctuality and exactness in all his
habits. Though far from conforming to any saintly ideal,
it was a life of devotion to philosophy, as all his biographers
agree to describe it. John Morley truly says, "Neither
Franklin nor any man that ever lived, could surpass him
in the heroic tenacity with which, in the face of a thousand
obstacles, he pursued his own ideal of a vocation."

In 1844, two years after the desertion of his wife, Comte
saw Madame Clotilde de Vaux, the sister of one of his dis-
ciples, the wife of a man of good family, condemned for
life to penal servitude. In the course of the next year, he
fell in love with her, entered into the closest intimacy with
her, which she succeeded in maintaining quite irreproach-
able, whilst he insisted on claiming her as his spiritual wife.
After one year of devoted friendship, she died in his arms,
leaving him inconsolable in what he called his veuvage


i'ternel. From this point began the second period of his
life, and of his philosophic career. He gave public lectures
again in 1848-1850, until the hall was closed by the
Empire, and he published his second great work, the
"Positive Polity," in four vols., 1851-1854. The "Cate-
chism " was published in 1852, the " Appeal to Conserva-
tives " in 1855, and the " Subjective Synthesis " in 1856.
In the year following his health, perhaps affected by his
rigid austerity of life, began to give way, and lie died of
cancer on September 5th, 1857. He was buried in Pcre la
Chaise ; the day of his death has since been commemorated
yearly by his followers, who now for thirty-eight years have
maintained his rooms, books, and effects intact, and have
carried out the dii'ections of his last will.

This is not the place to enter on the comjjlex question
whether the subsequent works of Comte were a normal
and legitimate development of his fundamental " Philo-
sophy." Gr. H. Lewes and John Morley have amply shown
that it was, though both of them refuse their assent to the
teaching of the " Polity." But, as Mr. Morley says, for
the purposes of Comte' s career the two " ought to be
regarded as an integral whole." And he also remarks,
" A great analysis was to precede a great synthesis, but it
was the synthesis on which Comte' s vision was centred
from the first." This is now so clear from the mass of
correspondence and biogra2:)hy which recent years have
produced, that it would no doubt modify the contrary
opinion expressed by Mr. Mill, thirty years ago. When
Miss Martineau translated the " Philosopliy," more than
forty years ago, the later works of Comte were not before
her ; and, as she frankly states in her preface, the later
works of Comte are not referred to in her book at all. She
carried this decision to the very extreme point of suppress-
ing, without any mention, the last ten pages of the sixth
and concluding volume of the " Philosophy." Now, from the


pointof view of the unity of Comte's career these ten pages are
crucial, for they contain the entire scheme of Comte's future
philosojjhical labours as he designed them in 1842. ainl as
they were ultimately carried out in the "Polity," "Cate-
chism," " Synthesis," etc., etc. These important pages
have been added by the present writer, in the condensed
form adopted by Miss Martineau.

A few words only are needed as to her very remarkable
work. It has been already shown that the singularly arti-
ficial style in which Comte chose to express his ideas, with
elaborate qualifications, provisoes, suggestions, and con-

Online LibraryAuguste ComteThe positive philosophy of Auguste Comte; (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 42)