Comte Auguste, founder of the so-called Positivism, was born at Montpellier Jan. 12,1798, and died at Paris Sept. 5, 1857. He was the propounder of an elaborate system of philosophy, to which he gave the name of Positive, to denote its scientific and practical character, and to distinguish it from all schemes of metaphysical speculation.
He sprung from a family eminently Roman Catholic in religion and Royalist in politics, and these influences affected the development of his theories, notwithstanding the fever of innovation which always possessed him. He was educated in Paris at the Polytechnic school, in which he became a subordinate instructor in 1832. His first dreams of philosophic reform are ascribed by him to his fourteenth year, perhaps in rivalry of the precocity attributed to Bacon. In 1816 he contemplated emigration to the United States, and the transplanting of his nascent philosophical career to America. In August, 1817, he became acquainted with the notorious St. Simon — half seer; half charlatan — and was so strongly impressed with: his visionary raptures as to be considered his most hopeful disciple, and the successor upon whom that strange sage desired his mantle to fall, though recognizing Comte's fatal want of religious susceptibility. This connection was always acknowledged by Comte, though mentioned in later years with increasing bitterness and disgust. He disclaimed all obligations to St. Simon, and fumed and fretted whenever the traces of St. Simonism were recognized in his own philosophy. In April, 1826, he opened a course of gratuitous prelections on the new scheme, which had been reduced to a somewhat determinate form by several essays previously published. The course was interrupted by brain fever, terminating in insanity. In consequence of this attack, which he designates une arise cerebrale, he was for some time confined in a lunatic asylum.
In 1829 he commenced the immense structure of his Positive Philosophy. It was completed in six heavy volumes, containing nearly 5000 pages. The first volume appeared in 1830, its 750 pages having been composed in the space of three months. M. Comte rarely revised, and never recopied his manuscript. As it came from his brain it passed to the press, and from the press to the public. The Revolution of July delayed the prosecution of his labors for five years, but with the return of more tranquil times he resumed them, and achieved the sixth and last volume in 1842. This is the work on which M. Comte's reputation as a philosopher almost exclusively rests. It is the only one of his works accepted by the majority of his disciples, or regarded by those who follow his guidance without attaching themselves to his banner. It contains the body and substance of Positivism, and was justly rebaptized Systeime de Philosophie Positive. In his later philosophical development Comte endeavored to infuse the vital breath of a moral and religious spirit into the cadaverous Pyrrhonism of his earlier views. But this attempt, which was flagrantly unsuccessful, offended alike his sect and his distant admirers, who hailed and honored his labors rather for their systematic infidelity than for their recognized truth.
On the completion of his scheme of philosophy Comte proceeded to apply its principles to the rectification of society. It was nine years: however, before the first volume of his Systeme de Politique Positive appeared. They were years of annoyance, anguish, misfortune, and strange adventure. He had supported himself and his family by the scanty fruits of his vocation as a public and a private teacher of mathematics. To this vocation we are indebted for his Treatise of Analytical Geometry, published in 1843. He relieved the dull routine of duty by lectures to the Parisian community on topics connected with science, or with the promulgation of his philosophy. One of these courses is perpetuated in his Philosophical Treatise on Popular Astronomy (1845). His heretical opinions, and, still more, his arrogant and irritable disposition, provoked opposition, and excited ill-will among his colleagues. His position in the Polytechnic School was rendered precarious, and he was finally deprived of it. At a later period his public lectures were for a short time closed by the interference of the government. This is the long personal persecution of which he complains with habitual acrimony in his later works. He was married, but had been separated from his wife. While his heart was wrung and parched by many sorrows, a new fascination consoled him, and opened unsuspected fountains in a dry and thirsty soil. In 1845 Comte became violently attached to an accomplished lady, Madame Clotilde de Vaux, who was separated from her husband, as he was from his wife. Their association was purely Platonic, and terminated in a year by the death of the siren on April 5, 1846. The Positive Politics is animated throughout by her inspiration, and is dedicated to her, with a commemoration of her virtues, in language which would sound extravagant in Dante or Petrarch. Brief as the intimacy had been, it revolutionized Comte's whole nature and the entire spirit of his speculations.
This strange transmutation of doctrine exhibited itself in the Discourse on the general Character of Positivism, which belonged to the midsummer of 1848, and was employed as an introduction to the System of Positive Politics. The rigidity and sterility of the cold and heartless rationalism of the Positive Philosophy was evidently unsuited to act upon society and to regenerate it; and the application of the Positive doctrine to practical ends almost necessitated the admission of the moral element, which had been previously disregarded. Men are not controlled by their reason; they are stimulated by their imagination, and impelled by their affections. To discipline the heart, an authority, and not arguments, is required. But no practical morals are possible, as an obligatory rule of action, which do not result from the decrees of a supreme will. Thus the first step towards a systematic plan of political authority, or of sociological interpretation, must be the recognition of a Divine Legislator and the acceptation of an incontestable creed. M. Comte was thus driven, by the extension of his theories to their practical applications, to introduce ethics into the circle of the sciences, to institute a divinity, to recognize or to invent a religion. His perception of the need was quickened, if his susceptibilities were not awakened, by the resuscitation of his natural affections, and the glow of sentiment was kindled by his preposterous passion. The long interval which separated the completion of the Philosophie Positive from the commencement of the Poltique Positive may have been, in reality, due less to the personal persecution of which he complains, and to the revolutionary anarchy of 1848, than to the time and thought requisite to systematize his new views, and to produce some appearance of harmony between the philosophic doctrine and its efflorescence in a theocratic dream. The whole plan was, however, arranged in his own mind when he entered upon the composition of his sociological treatise. Nothing is more admirable thaw the rapidity and completeness, the methodical regularity, and the preordained precision with which each successive year brought forward at the appointed time a new volume of the Politique Positive, till the whole was accomplished. Each volume appeared in its season, like the blossoms of the returning summer. The first was published in July, 1851; the second in May, 1852; the third in August, 1853; and the fourth in August, 1854. The second volume of the Positive Politics was preceded in the same month by the publication of the Calender of Positivism — that singular and elaborate rebaptism of the months of the year and the days of the week which substitutes the notabilities of human progress for the Sundays and saints' days of the Catholic Church, and the months of imperial Rome. In the October of the same year was published the Catechism of Positivism, designed to diffuse a knowledge of the new philosophy and the new creed among the masses of the people. At the close of the Politique Positive M. Comte marks out the ulterior projects which he designed to achieve before advancing years should demand repose. Seven vears were to be devoted to the enlargement and rectification of his theory; and then, on the attainment of his grand climacteric, he would sing his Dimittas. A System of Positive Logic, or the Philosophy of Mathematics, was promised for 1856; A System of Positive Morals, or Treatise on Universal Education, for 1859; and A System of Positive Industry, or Treatise on the Action of Humanity on its terrestrial Abode, for 1861. The first volume of the first of these works was published, according to announcement, in 1856, but before the second was ready Comte died, in 1857. Various pamphlets had been issued by M. Comte at different periods of his career, in order to give immediate consistency to his views on special points, or to popularize his doctrine. These it is needless to specify. More interesting in themselves, as more important for an appreciation of the man, are the annual circulars issued to those who participated in the subscription for his support.
The System of Positivism, in accordance with what has already been observed, requires to be considered under two distinct, though connected aspects — the scientific theory as originally expounded in M. Comte's earlier work, and the practical application of that theory as presented in his latest complete treatise.
(1.) The Positive Philosophy. — This is the development and coordination of all the materialistic tendencies of science in the age of the Encyclopaedia and the Revolution. It is not itself materialistic, because it proceeds beyond materialism in the same direction, and is attenuated into a pure sensuous phenomenalism. It contemplates merely "the shows of things," and it coordinates them according to their concomitances and sequences, recognizing no actual bond of connection between them, nor any power on which they depend. The function of philosophy is simply to introduce order and coherence into observed phenomena. Positivism is, accordingly, a habit or intellectual temperament rather than a philosophy, a method rather than a doctrine. Hence the most characteristic peculiarity of this work, as of the whole intellectual evolution of its author, is his arrangement of the sciences, with the principles on which that arrangement proceeds. The treatise becomes, in consequence, an orderly exposition of the sciences and of their reciprocal dependencies, embracing the statement of the results and processes of science, with an indication of deficiencies, excrescences, and aberrations in their present constitution. It is more profound in its execution than in its conception — in its details than in its general spirit. The solitary principle on which the whole elaboration of Positivism reposes is the doctrine of the Three States. To this may be referred Comte's classification of the sciences — his rule for their evolution, composition, and rank — his exposition of their significance and disciplinary value — his history of society, and his theory of humanity. This cardinal position is, that the whole human family, as well as each individual mind, passes through three successive and incompatible conditions: 1. The Theological State, which ascribes all phenomena to divine agency; 2. The Metaphysical State, which questions the divine action, and attributes all changes to influences, entities, occult causes, laws of nature, etc.; and, 3. The Positive State, which accepts the phenomena without reference to their origination, and arranges them under general laws, which merely state "the invariable relations of succession and resemblance." This principle of the Three States has been assailed by both admirers and opponents; but it is rather Imperfect and misapplied than false. The succession of these states is explained by the confusion and multiplicity of apparently disconnected facts, which perplex the untutored mind, and suggest the arbitrary will of superior existences. As order reveals itself in the midst of disorder, an arbitrary government of the universe is repudiated, and law maintained by the operation of natural forces is more or less extensively accepted as the solution of the enigmas of creation. Thus metaphysics is the crucible in which theology and faith are gradually evaporated. As the regularity of phenomena is more generally apprehended, the jurisdiction of metaphysics is by degrees restricted, and is finally denied. No knowledge is admitted which does not promise to become science, no science which is not phenomenal only, no phenomena which suggest any other principle than uniform harmony and consecution of facts. In the process of speculative disentanglement by which the Positive habit is attained, those subjects are naturally the first to assume a scientific form:which are characterized by the greatest simplicity in them. selves, and are, according to the Baconian expression, "least immersed in matter." Hence the relations of number and space are the earliest to exhibit an orderly coherence; and mathematics is not merely the disciplinary introduction to the sciences, but the eldest — by birth. Increasing complexity and specialty characterize the sciences as they successively detach themselves from the general mass of unsystematized knowledge. The principle on which the classification of the sciences proceeds is thus from greater to less simplicity, from the more general to the more special, from the more abstract to the more concrete. By the application of this rule M. Comte organizes the whole hierarchy of the sciences. Six only are recognized in the Politique Positive:
I. Mathematics; II. Astronomy; III. Natural Philosophy, or Physics; IV. Chemistry; V. Biology; VI. Sociology; to which was afterwards added, VII. Morals.
Having thus arranged the several sciences, M. Comte proceeds to the exhibition of their functions, their constitution, their conquests, and their condition. He thus furnishes an abstract of all scientific knowledge. This immense elaboration culminates in his creation of the new science of sociology. That science is roughly sketched rather than definitely constituted in the Philosophie Positive. It is divided into two parts, Statics and Dynamics. Social Statics treats of the formal conditions of the existence of societies; social Dynamics of society in its vital state of incessant transformation. Having ascertained ail that had been accomplished, and all that legitimately sought accomplishment, Comte considered that a solid foundation had been laid for a scientific theory of political action adequate to the regeneration of society.
(2.) Positive Politics. — It has been shown how M. Comte was reduced to the necessity of discovering or imagining a God, and of reconstructing a theology, a ceremonial, and a religious organization. The new divinity — le Nouveau Etre Supreme — is humanity. The units of the living race are separately united by death to this great spirit, and become atomic constituents of the immortal essence. It is a complete deification of man, a complete resolution of divinity into humanity. It is a strange counterpart to Pantheism which is produced in this scheme of thorough-going Panhumanism. The new divinity was to be adored, to be approached with prayer, to be honored with an appropriate ceremonial, worshipped with due rites, and served by a numerous army of priests. Of this priesthood M. Comte was to be the living head. Science and religion were at length reconciled by their union, and identification; the priest was the scientific instructor; the priesthood consisted of the consecrated devotees of science; the high-priest was the supreme director of the intellectual, moral, industrial, and social development of society. In the midst of these wild imaginations, it is startling to find a sedate and sober estimation of the whole order of society and of each of its separate parts. The sanctity of the family, the consecration of marriage and its indissolubility, the domestic culture of infancy, the relation and subordination of the sexes, the general inviolability of property, the duties of capital and industry, the distribution and retribution of service are all maintained in a manner utterly antagonistic to the current doctrines of communism and agrarianism. The most original and instructive part of this treatise is to be found in the consideration of the reciprocal influences of external nature upon man, and of man upon external nature. By this inquiry, brief as it is, the first permanent foundation is laid for a scientific exposition of the transformation of societies.
From the rapidity with which Comte's works were composed, from the absence of all revision, from general inattention to the arts of composition and disposition, his treatises are swelled and deformed by continual repetitions and by want of perspicuous arrangement. 'They are vast and rambling essays rather than systematic expositions of philosophic doctrine. The blemishes which he was careless of avoiding have now ceased to be important. The impulse communicated by Comte remains, but few will ever again dream of reading the ten thick volumes in which his whole vast project was originally set forth. The direct effect of his career has been very slight, its indirect effect very great. He has linked his name with no enlargement of science or philosophy except in sociology — with no practical reform in society. His principles have found of late numerous followers in England, and a small number of them adopt "the religion of humanity" as well as the Positive philosophy. One of the chief of these is Mr. Thomas Congreve, who has taken steps (1867) to found a church, with a building and regular services. Mr. Congreve has announced that a church will shortly be built, and regular services instituted, for promoting the new creed which is to regenerate humanity.
Literature. — All Comte's important works have been enumerated in this notice. For his biography reference may be made to the autobiographical statements scattered through his prefaces, circulars, etc.; to Robinet, Notice sur l' Euuvre et sur la Vie d' Auguste Comte (Paris, 1860), and to Littre, Auguste Comte et la Philosophie Positive (Paris, 1863). For a fuller account of his philosophy than has been given here, recourse may be had to the last-named work; to Littre, Conservation, Revolution, et Positivisme (Paris, 1852)'; Lewes, Comae's Philosophy of the Sciences (Lond. 1853);
Harriet Martineau, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (Lond. 1853); 2 vols. 8vo); Lewes, History of Philosophy (3d ed. 1867, Lond. 2 vols. 8vo); Celestin de Bligniires, Exposition Abregee de la Philosophie et de la Religion Positives (Paris, 1857); Herbert Spencer, The Classification of the Sciences, etc. (New York, 1864); J. S. Mill, Comte's Philosophy (Lond. 1866); also to Sir David Brewster's notice or the first two volumes of the Positive Philosophy in the Edinburgh Review, July, 1838, and to the Essays on Comte and his Philosophy in the Methodist Quarterly Review, New York, January, 1852; April, 1852; July, 1853; October, 1853; and July, 1854; and in the North 'British Review, May, 1854. SEE POSITIVISM.