The Alliance with Saint-Simon

In the summer of 1817Comte was introduced to Henri Saint-Simon, then director of theperiodical Industrie, a creative, fertile, disorderly, and tumultuousman who was to have a major and lasting influence on Comte's life andworks. Saint-Simon, at this point nearly sixty years old, was attractedby the brilliant young man who possessed a trained and methodicalcapacity for work, which Saint-Simon so conspicuously lacked. Comtebecame his secretary and close collaborator.

The two men workedfor a while in intimate conjunction. In the beginning Comte was paidthree hundred francs a month, but when Saint-Simon again experiencedthose financial straits with which he was frequently afflicted, Comtestayed on without pay both for intellectual reasons and in hopes offuture reward.

A number of scholars have argued the question ofwho benefited the most from the close collaboration, Comte orSaint-Simon. There is no need to take sides in this somewhat byzantinequarrel. It suffices to say that Comte was influenced in a major way byhis patron, even though his close contact with Saint-Simon may havebrought to fruition ideas that had already germinated in Comte's mind. It is certain, in any case, that the young Republican advocate ofequality was converted to an elitist point of view soon after meetingSaint-Simon; one of Comte's first essays, written in July 1819,testifies to this fact. The elitist conception stayed with himthroughout his career.

The sketches and essays that Comte wroteduring the years of close association with Saint-Simon, especiallybetween 1819 and 1824, contain the nucleus of all his later major ideas. One finds here not only the major scientific ideas he was to develop inhis Cours de philosophie positive, but also, and this is oftenoverlooked, the beginnings of his later conceptions concerning the needfor a unifying communal order based on a newly instituted spiritualpower.

In 1824 Comte finally broke with his master. The immediatecause concerned a somewhat involved and rather squalid fight over theform in which one of Comte's essays was to be published. Should it beunder Saint-Simon's name as in the past? Or as Auguste Comte's Systemede politque positive, first volume, first part? Comte was given onehundred copies of his work under his own name. At the same time,Saint-Simon put out one thousand copies entitled Catechisme desindustriels by Henri de Saint-Simon, Third Installment, a work thatincluded Comte's essay, with an unsigned preface written by Saint-Simonin which he found fault with his disciple. Comte now repudiated themaster whose name became anathema to him during the rest of his life. The master once denied was rejected over and over again.

Thequarrel had intellectual as well as material causes. To be sure, Comtehad begun to chafe under the pretension of the old man who continued totreat him as the obedient pupil he had once been rather than as a memberof a kind of competitive alliance. Comte had already begun to make aname for himself in the world of liberal journalism and among an eliteof scientists. But the two collaborators now also diverged in regard tothe strategy to be used for winning consent and influence among thepublic. Saint-Simon, ever the activist, wished to emphasize the needfor immediate reform. What he wanted above all was to inspire theliberal industrialists and bankers who were his backers to take promptsteps for the reorganization of French society. Comet, in contrast,emphasized that theoretical work had to take precedence over reformactivities, and that establishing the foundations of the scientificdoctrine was more important for the time being than effecting anypractical influence. Furthermore, and such are the ironies ofintellectual history, Comte, the future High Priest of Humanity,objected strenuously to the religious cast that Saint-Simon now began togive to his doctrine.

And so, although he now basked in the gloryof having received letters of admiration and encouragement for his lastwork from such eminent scientists as Cuvier and von Humboldt, as well asfrom a variety of liberal deputies and publicists, Comte again stoodalone--a marginal intellectual, only tenuously connected with theParisian world of letters and science. There was now a Comtean system,but its author was without position or office, without chair or salary.

In the meantime, Comte thought that he had at least found somesecurity in his personal life. In February 1825, he decided to marryCaroline Massin, a young woman whom he had known for several years, morerecently as the owner of a small bookstore and earlier as a streetwalkerin the neighborhood of the Palais Royal. The marriage was a tempestuousone-- they separated several times and finally parted ways forever--butfor a time Comte felt that he had found domestic anchorage, although hewas still adrift in his search for professional recognition and socialposition.

Comte refused to accept a proffered position as achemical engineer, continuing instead to eke out a meager living bygiving private lessons. In this way he could devoted himself totheoretical rather than practical problems and was sometimes able toestablish close ties with the high-born families whose sons he taught. For a while he also gained some additional income from writing, moreparticularly for the Producteur, a journal founded by thespiritual sons of Saint-Simon after the death of their master.

Duringthese years Comte's major preoccupation was centered in the elaborationof his positive philosophy. When the work seemed advanced enough to bepresented to a wider audience, Comte, having no official chair fromwhich to expound his theories, decided to offer a private course towhich auditors would subscribe in advance and where he would disclosehis summa of positive knowledge. The course opened in April,1826. Some illustrious men graced the audience. Alexander vonHumboldt, several members of the Academy of Sciences, the economistCharles Dunoyer, the duc Napoleon de Montebello, Hippolyte Carnot, theson of the organizer of the revolutionary armies and brother of thegreat scientist Sadi Carnot, and a number of former students of the EcolePolytechnique were in attendance.

Comte gave three of hislectures, but when the audience came for the fourth, they found thedoors closed. Comte had fallen ill, having suffered a serious mentalcollapse. For a while he was treated for "mania" in the hospital of thefamous Dr. Esquirol, where this author of a Treatise on Maniaattempted to cure him by cold-water treatment and bloodletting. WhenMadame Comte finally decided to bring him back to their home, Esquirolobjected. The register of discharge of the patient had a note inEsquirol's hand, "N.G." (Non Geuri--not recovered.)

Afterreturning home, Comte fell into a deep melancholic state, and he evenattempted suicide by throwing himself into the Seine. But in the courseof the year 1827, and after an extended trip to his native Montpellier,the patient slowly recovered. In August 1828, he symbolized hisvictory over the illness by writing a review of a book entitled Irritationand Folly.

The course of lectures was resumed in 1829, andComte was pleased again to find in the audience several great names ofscience and letters. Yet, the small reputation he enjoyed proved afragile support. A number of eminent men continued to stand by him, butas time went on he gradually became an object of ridicule in thescientific community. Specialists of every field united in condemnationof a man who seemed to have the promethean ambition to encompass thedevelopment of all the sciences in his encyclopedic enterprise.

Comtenow resumed his wretched life in neglect and isolation. During theyears 1830-1842, when he wrote his masterwork, the Cours dephilosophie positive, he continued to live miserably on the marginof the academic world. All attempts to be appointed to a chair at theEcole Polytechnique or to a position with the Academy ofSciences or the College de France were of not avail. He onlymanaged in 1832 to be appointed "repetiteur d'analyse et de mecanique"at the Ecole; five years later he was also given the positionsof external examiner for the same school. The first position brought ameager two thousand francs, the second little more. He also taughtmathematics at a private school, and these three positions, togetherwith unused per diem fees paid him as a traveling examiner for theEcole, allowed him to live just above the margin of poverty.

Duringthe years of intense concentration when he wrote the Cours, he not onlywas troubled by financial difficulties and continued academic rebuffs,but by increasing marital difficulties. Slowly Comte withdrew furtherand further into his shell. The system he elaborated began to dominatethe man. For reasons of "cerebral hygiene," he no longer followed thecurrent literature in all the many fields he wrote about. In fact, hedecided in 1838 that he would no longer read any scientific work,limiting himself to the reading of fiction and poetry. In his lastyears the only book he read over and over again was the Imitation ofChrist.

Yet despite all these adversities, Comte slowly beganto acquire disciples. Perhaps more gratifying than the conversion of afew remarkable French disciples, such as the eminent scholar EmileLittre who became his close follower, was the fact that his positivedoctrine now had penetrated across the Channel and received considerableattention there. Sir David Brewster, an eminent physicist, welcomed itin the pages of the Edinburgh Review in 1838 and, mostgratifying of all, John Stuart Mill became a close admirer and spoke ofComte in his System of Logic (1843) as "among the first ofEuropean thinkers." Comte and Mill corresponded regularly, and Comtetold his British correspondent not only of his scientific work but ofthe trial and tribulations of his marital life and the difficulties ofhis material existence. Mill even arranged for a number of Britishadmirers of Comte to send him a considerable sum of money to tide himover his financial difficulties.

Soon after the Cours wasfinally finished, Comte's wife left him forever. Lonely and isolated,he continued to assail those scientists who refused to recognize him. He complained to ministers, wrote quixotic letters to the press, needledhis enemies, and taxed the patience of his few remaining friends. In1844, having created too many enemies at the Ecole Polytechnique,his appointment as examiner was not renewed. Hence, he lost about halfof his income. (He was to lose his other position with the Ecolein 1851.)

The year 1844, when he had been publicly humiliated bynot being reappointed at the Ecole, was also, it turned out, theyear of his greatest elation. He fell in love with Clothilde de Vaux,an upper-class woman not yet thirty years old, who had been abandoned byher husband, a petty official. He had absconded with government fundsand gone to Brussels, leaving her, as well as his gambling debts, inParis. Comte met her at a young disciple's house and fell passionatelyin love with her. Suddenly the cool and methodical mask that Comte hadpresented to the outside world seemed to dissolve. Comte in love was aComte transformed. All the previously repressed passionate elements ofhis nature now came to the fore. The encounter with Clothilde, short asit was to be, proved as important to the middle-aged Comte as theencounter with Saint-Simon had been to the young man.

The grandepassion never led to physical fulfillment. Clothilde resisted all hisentreaties and kept the affair on a lofty platonic and romantic plane. And, only a few months after they had exchanged their first loveletters, Clothilde took to her bed, stricken by that most romantic ofillnesses, tuberculosis. Almost a year after the beginning of theaffair she died.

Comte now vowed to devote the rest of his lifeto the memory of "his angel." The Systeme de politique positive,which he had begun to sketch in 1844, was to become a memorial to hisbeloved. In its pages, Comte now hailed the primacy of emotion overintellect, of feeling over mind; he proclaimed over and over the healingpowers of warm femininity for a humanity too long dominated by theharshness of masculine intellect.

When the Systemefinally appeared between 1851 and 1854, Comte lost many, if not most, ofthose rationalist followers he had acquired with so much difficulty overthe last fifteen years. John Stuart Mill and Emile Littre were notwilling to concede that universal love was the solvent for all thedifficulties of the age. Nor could they accept the Religion of Humanityof which Comte now proclaimed himself the High Priest. The multipleritual observances, the special calendar, the whole elaborate rigmaroleof the cult now unveiled appeared to them a repudiation of Comte'sprevious message. The prophet of the positive stage seemed to fall backinto the darkness of the theological stage. The intimation of things tocome, which can already be found in his earliest writings, had notcommanded their attention.

Comte was undismayed by the loss ofdisciples. Let them go; he would attract others to the bosom of the newChurch. Comte decided that he would henceforth sign all his circulars"The Founder of Universal Religion, Great Priest of Humanity." From theseat o the new pontiff now poured letters to the powerful of theworld--the Czar Nicholas, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, thehead of the Jesuits--trying to convert them to the new order. And athome, Comte now lectured to diverse audiences, more particularly theworking class, to convert them to the new creed. He wrote appeals tothe workers, a Positive Catechism, Appeals to Conservatives--infact, appeals to anybody and everybody who seemed at all disposed tolisten.

In 1848, a few days after the February Revolution, he hadfounded the Societe Positiviste, which became in the earlyfifties the main center of his teaching. The members tithed themselvesto assure the livelihood of the master and vowed to spread his message. Comte now sent weekly messages to his disciples in the provinces andabroad, which he compared to Saint Paul's epistles. Missions functionedin Spain, England, the United States, and Holland. Every evening, fromseven to nine, except on Wednesday when the Societe Positivistehad its regular meeting, Comte received his Parisian disciples at home. Former polytechnicians and future politicians, intellectuals and manualworkers, here intermingled in their great love for the master. He whohad been denied so often finally found rest in the knowledge that he hadat last found disciples who, unlike the former false friends, did notcome together admiring his intellect alone, but basked in the emanationof his love and loved him in return.

Comte had travelled far fromthe republican and libertarian enthusiasms of his youth. The rebelliousstudent from Montpellier now preached the virtues of submission and thenecessity of order. The twin motto of the Positive Church was stillOrder and Progress, but in these last years ten need for order assumedever greater weight in the eyes of its founder. Revulsion from thebloody events of the June days of 1848 had finally brought Comte intothe camp of Napoleon III, and it was this rage for order that now madehim see Czars and Grand Viziers, even the head of the Jesuits, asbrothers under the skin.

On the seventeenth of June, 1857, Comte,for the first time in eleven years, failed to visit the grave ofClothilde at the Pere Lachaise cemetery. The early symptoms of aninternal cancer kept him at home. The illness progressed swiftly, andhe died on the fifth of September. The following Tuesday, a small groupof disciples, friends, and neighbors followed his bier to the PereLachaise. Here his tomb became the center of a small positivistcemetery where, buried close to the master, are his most faithfuldisciples.

From Coser, 1977:15-20.


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