Auguste Comte

The Person

Auguste Comte was born on January 19, 1798, on the first of Pluviose in the Sixth Year of the Republic, in the southern French city of Montpellier. His father, a fervent Catholic and discreet Royalist, was a petty government official, an earnest, methodical, and straightlaced man, devoted to his work, his religion, and his family, whose only pastime was to cultivate his garden. The older Comte despised the Revolution and decried the persecution of Catholicism it had brought in its wake but never forgot that he was in the service of the government, no matter how quickly its form and composition changed in these turbulent times. He was, above all, a man attached to order.

Small, delicate, and subject to many illnesses, the young Auguste Comte nevertheless proved to be an outstanding student at the imperial lycee of his native town, which he had entered at the age of nine. He was studiously devoted to his work, but he was also among the most recalcitrant and rebellious of the students. Very early in his school career he lost the faith of his parents and substituted for it a fervent republican faith in liberty. He hated the reigning Emperor and dreamed of a revival of the glorious days of the Revolution.

The only teacher who made a very strong impression on the young Comte was his professor of mathematics, a former Protestant pastor named Daniel Encontre, a man of broad learning and catholic concerns. It was probably he who awoke in the young Comte his interest in mathematics and also served as a role model for the wide-ranging intellectual that Comte was to become.

In August 1814, Comte entered the competition for the entrance examinations of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, a kind of governmental M.I.T., but even more difficult to enter, and was admitted as the fourth man on the entrance list. He registered in October and moved to Paris--a city he was never to leave again, except for relatively short periods.

The Emperor had never been very popular in the Ecole Polytechnique, which had been created by the Convention as a scientific school. He had reorganized it on a military model and had it directed by a military governor and his general staff. From the point of view of Napoleon, the school ought to have trained mainly officers, even though it was also set up to furnish engineers for the major public services. The students, still having the original scientific character of the school clearly in their minds, saw themselves as budding scientists and disagreed with Napoleon's practical emphasis.

Early in 1814, when the Allies attacked Paris, young polytechnicians fought in the suburbs against the enemy, but in November the school operated again as usual, and the young Comte, though a bit bored, could enjoy the privilege of sitting at the feet of many of the eminent scientists of France. He soon felt that this was his school, a school from which he not only wished to graduate with honors, but where he hoped to teach after the end of his studies. Yet the young Comte, whom most of his comrades already considered the leader of his class, continued the disorderly and unruly behavior of his Montpellier lycee days. Then the ardent hater of Napoleonic tyranny, he now found the restoration of the Bourbon kings even less to his taste. He shared the Republican faith of the majority of his schoolmates; with the reestablished monarchy and its mediocre servants, even the Napoleonic Empire appeared beautiful.

When Napoleon returned, the school as a whole enthusiastically joined his camp, and Comte was one of the leaders of his revolutionary fellows. But the hundred days passed quickly. After Waterloo and the capitulation of Paris, order was reestablished and the school routine began all over again. Comte returned to his course of studies--and to his usual insubordinate and insolent behavior toward the school authorities.

In April 1816, six students protested to the administration against its antiquated mode of examination. When these six were to be punished, the whole student body expressed its solidarity. The administration appealed to the minister in charge. Soon the governor announced that the school was to be closed. It was to be reorganized, and those students who had behaved themselves could apply for readmission at a later date. Boiling with rage, Comte went home. But Montpellier did not hold him long. The action was in Paris.

Returning to the capital in July, Comte supported himself by tutoring and lived in hopes of the imminent overthrow of the Bourbon oppressors. He met a general who had a number of connections in the United States and who promised to find him a position in an American version of the Ecole Polytechnique, which was about to be organized. Comte, full of Republican ardor, dreamed of emigrating forever to the land of the free. But the project fell through. Congress approved in principle the idea of creating an American Polytechnique but postponed the opening indefinitely.

Comte continued to give private lessons in mathematics and helped translate a book on geometry from the English, but the future looked bleak. He did not even try to gain readmission to the Ecole Polytechnique, which was being reopened. And then came the coup de foudre, which was to change the direction of his life.

From Coser, 1977:13-15.

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