Karl Barth points out very sharply in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century that the charateristic trait of man from the 17th and 18th century is the Will for Form. What this means is that man had come to realize that he has the ability to form and shape his world into what he desires.
For centuries man had lived in preordained boundaries and roles. The king or some monarch ruled and the people were his subjects. The church said what was right and wrong and man obeyed, for the most part. Everyone had their roles and their economic and social place was decided at their birth. But suddenly, with the Reformation and the Enlightenment, all that had begun to change. And with these old structures and boundaries changing it was as if man had woke up to a new world and the old world seemed nothing but a dream. Suddenly man realized he could build his own system, create his own law, and make his own rules concerning reality. It is not as if these things had never been attempted and accomplished, but never had there been such opportunity to systematically re-shape the world as the opportunity that presented itself to the men of the 18th century.
Man was awake and he felt truly alive for the first time (so he thought), alive to build a new world after his own desires and not after forced boundaries that he had be forced to live under for so long. New theologies, philosophies, and belief systems were formed. New economic systems and ways of living were being tried and promoted throughout the western world. And all this would culminate in the American and French revolutions, which show an attempt to form and shape a completely new nation with a new political, legal, and social structure.
It was into this climate that Augste Comte was born and he would take part in this reshaping of the new world in his own way. His part would be to reshape society and the way people think about how to build and form a functioning society. His approach would be fairly novel and his influence on those who would come after him is clear. Many have called him the father of sociology because of his influence and thought. By taking a brief look into Comte and his philosophy, we catch a glimpse behind the curtain of our modern world as we see one of the wizards of Oz who has taken part in building the world in which we live.
Comte was born in Montpellier, Herault in France in 1798. This means that he was born at the end of the French Revolution and this would set the stage for the social unrest and questions that he would spend his life trying to answer. His full name is Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte, which shows quite clearly that he was born into a French Catholic family, a faith he would grow up to reject and, as we will see later, he went so far as to even create his own religion where he would be the high priest.
He was educated at the University of Montpellier and finally he went to Ecole Polytechnique, which was at the time one of the top centers for education in the new progressive ideas while also being responsible for sending many into government positions as those who would help shape and lead French society by implementing this ideas. Thus, we are reminded again that the higher institutions play a great part in handing down the philosophy and world view of the time. Comte was educated at the Ecole, and along with being brought up in the new world that was blooming all around him, he was definitely influenced and groomed to become the child of the Enlightenment that he would become.
Comte would get his first break by landing a job with Henri de Saint-Simon. Though many historians debate Saint-Simon’s influence on Comte, this debate is superficial, for when one looks at Saint-Simon’s thought there is no doubt that one finds seeds of Comte, even if the two would differ in various places. My concern is not to outline the idiosyncrasies of each philosopher but to point out the thoughts that actually did influence and filter into the forming of the brave new world. And thus let us briefly take a look at Saint-Simon and his particular thoughts that would influence Comte.
Henri de Saint-Simon did not have the same level of influence or success of Comte, but he would make a difference in the generations that would follow him, arguably his main influence being as the mentor of Comte. Saint-Simon saw that the new world was rejecting the authority of the church and the old boundaries that had been in place. He believed that in place of the church and the Scriptures, the new society should be founded on the authority of science and the men of science should be the leaders of this new society.
The easiest way to understand his vision of the new society is to understand that he saw the new society as one big industry. Scientists would be the artists and rulers of this new society, industrialists would own portions of the industry, and the common men would be workers in this industry. It would be a national community based on cooperation and technological progress which Saint-Simon hoped would eventually eliminate the poverty of the lower classes.
In this new society, which was a form of a utopian society, there would be new politics based on industrialization, and directed by science that is now being applied to the social realm. This science would be a science of production where the citizens were to see themselves as workers in the big industry of the state. Production and efficiency would be the main judge of social actions. For example, men should not fight because fighting lowers production since energy has to be focused from production to getting the situation under control. Thus the vision was for a neutralized working class filled with workers that simply did their job. And good morale will come by the improvement of industry.
Saint-Simon believed that mankind could be viewed as another organism that science could dissect, predict, and form to act a certain way. By applying science to the social sphere of man, a new society could be formed, and this is the founding of the social sciences, the first traces of a sociology which would be furthered by Comte.
One last important note about Saint-Simon is that he believed that this new society would be the core of a new religion. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes “in Saint-Simon there was always a double tendency: his positivist and scientific studies impelled him to found a purely practical and demonstrable moral code, while his sentimental and mystical tendencies led him to desire a religion (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13377a.htm).”
At the last part of his life, Saint-Simaon wrote a treatise called Nouveau Christianisme (New Christianity). In it he says that the old Christianity, which believed in dogma, should be dismissed as heresy and that a new religion founded upon this new society should spring up with only elements of the Christian morality remaining. He proclaims:
Moral doctrine will be considered by the new Christians as the most important thing; the form of worship and dogma will be regarded only as secondary features for the purpose of fixing the attention of the faithful of all classes on morality…. The founders of New Christianity and leaders of the new Church, should be those men who are most capable of contributing by their efforts to the improvement of the well-being of the poorest class…all so-called Christian religions of the present time are nothing but heresies – that is to say, that they do not aim directly at the quickest possible improvement of the well-being of the poorest class, which is the sole aim of Christianity (from Nouveau Christianisme)
He envisioned a new Christianity where creeds and doctrine does not matter, and the beliefs of the Trinity and Resurrection were not even believed. Worship was relative and did not really matter, for all that really mattered was morality, which was mainly alleviating the poverty of the lower classes. Some of his own poverty that he experienced in his life along with the poverty he saw in America helped give him this sympathy for the poor and he saw this allowance of poverty to be the chief evil remaining in this new world.
Saint-Simon’s new religion was a vision of a world where science guided and gave knowledge to all things, and the whole world embraced industrialization, becoming one big cooperative industry that worked to eliminate the poverty of the lower classes. This religion would be guided by other men of science and the leaders of this new society. Saint-Simon greatly influenced Comte in his belief that all real knowledge came from science, that science must be applied to the social realm of man thus creating new social science, and that this new society founded upon the sciences would itself become a new church for mankind.
In Part 2, the final part of this post on Auguste Comte, we will expound on Comte’s own thought in order to understand better the world in which we live, a world which clearly has fruit from the seeds Comte planted.