Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

1. Life

Comte was born to bourgeois parents on 19 January 1798 in Montpellier, a southern town in France, which suffered from social and political divisions due to the French Revolution. Growing up in a monarchist, Catholic household, headed by a civil servant, he became a teenage rebel attracted to republicanism and secularism. Thanks to his brilliant mathematical abilities, he headed off at age sixteen to Paris to attend the premier engineering school in France, the Ecole Polytechnique. But in 1816, it expelled him for insubordination. In 1817, he started to work for Henri de Saint-Simon, who taught him that intellectual reform was the way to rejuvenate society. Seven years later, their collaboration ended after Comte accused his mentor of trying to take credit for his ‘fundamental opuscule’, the Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for Reorganizing Society). He then wrote two articles for the Saint-Simonians and supported himself by tutoring. In 1826, he started to give a course on his new philosophy, but after a few lectures, which Alexander von Humboldt and other luminaries attended, he had a breakdown. He spent eight months in an asylum and later thanked his wife, Caroline Massin, for helping him to recover. The daughter of actors, she had run a reading room before they wed in 1824. However, for the rest of his life, he continued to suffer from what seemed to be a bipolar disorder and paranoia. In 1838, he stopped reading contemporary books, newspapers, and journals. This regime, which he called ‘cerebral hygiene’, served to underscore his image of himself as an original genius. His egotism and mental problems led to a separation from his wife in 1842. From 1832 to 1851, he worked as an admissions officer and teaching assistant at the Ecole Polytechnique, which continually rebuffed his applications for a professorship and eventually terminated its relationship with him because of his difficult personality. While tutoring and working at the Ecole Polytechnique, he wrote the six volumes of the Cours de philosophie positive, published between 1830 and 1842. In this work, Comte established positivism in hopes of creating an intellectual consensus, the first step towards social harmony. He was so adamant that lay people should have a grasp of scientific reasoning, which would free them from so-called authorities, that between 1831 and 1848 he gave free public lectures on the history of astronomy. They were published as the Traite philosophique d’astronomie populaire (Philosophical Treatise on Popular Astronomy) (1844). Likewise, in Traité élémentaire de géometrie analytique (Elementary Treatise of Analytical Geometry) (1843), he encouraged mathematicians to show their students the scientific process by which new methods were developed. Both works reflect not only his dedication to education but his conviction that one could not fully understand a science without a grasp of its history. In addition, he was eager to make the principles of his philosophy more accessible because the Cours proved notoriously dry and difficult to read. To that end, he applauded Harriet Martineau’s free translation and condensation of the Cours into two clearly written volumes in 1853.

Comte’s second major work was the Système de politique positive, published in four volumes between 1851 and 1854. Besides outlining his political vision, it announced a new science of morality, and launched a new Religion of Humanity to systematise people’s feelings and coordinate them with their ideas and actions. Comte’s religion evolved from positivism, but its details were partly inspired by Catholicism and his love for a much younger woman, Clotilde de Vaux. Beginning in 1845, she and Comte grew close, but she resisted his sexual advances and died of tuberculosis a year later. The grief-stricken Comte presented her in his subsequent works as a kind of angelic muse and his wife as a prostitute. He hoped to show more clearly how love could bring together the intellect, morality, and practical activities in the Synthèse subjective (Subjective Synthesis), but he was able to finish only the first volume on mathematics, which was published in 1856.

During the last few years of his life, he was in constant correspondence with his disciples. A ‘Positivist Subsidy’ to support the ‘Great Priest of Humanity’ was organised by Emile Littré. Comte also looked to another famous intellectual for support, John Stuart Mill, who eagerly introduced his ideas into England (they corresponded from 1841 to 1846). However, due to doctrinal differences and petty quarrels, Comte broke off relations with both Mill and Littré. Paradoxically, the man who devoted his life to creating social harmony had many difficulties getting along with people. Comte died of stomach cancer on 5 September 1857, leaving a small Positivist Society devoted to his complex legacy.

Citing this article:
Pickering, Mary. Life. Comte, Isidore-Auguste-Marie-François-Xavier (1798–1857), 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC016-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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