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

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

4. Religion of Humanity and the positive state

As a reflection of the dominant philosophy and the state of intellectual development, society along with its political structure went through three stages. Due in part to the influence of Saint-Simon, Comte asserted that there were always two types of power in every society, a temporal (secular) one and a spiritual one, both of which must remain separate. The temporal power dominated practice, that is, activities, and the second took care of intellectual and moral life. In the theological stages, military men (i.e. kings) and priests ruled. They directed society towards conquest and promulgated the theory of divine right in politics. In the transitional metaphysical stage, which began in the fourteenth century and tended to privilege the people, lawyers (chiefly in parliaments) and metaphysicians (academic and literary men) were in control. The doctrine of popular sovereignty, the social contract, and natural rights dominated the political scene. Manufacturing emerged in the socio-economic sphere. The positive stage began in the seventeenth century with Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. It would become fully established when all of the sciences, including sociology, became positive. Conquest would be finally replaced by industrialisation as the goal of society. The dominant forces would be, on the one hand, industrialists, including bankers, merchants, and manufacturers, and on the other hand, positive philosophers, who were scientists with knowledge of all the sciences, including the science of society. Comte assumed that people who had the most general knowledge had the widest sympathies. Positive philosophers, who made up the spiritual power, cared most about the general good and would check the selfish, corrupt tendencies of the temporal power, that is, the industrialists. Curiously, he wanted the industrialists to rule in the positive era but was critical of them and capitalism in general for creating an immoral, materialistic culture.

To counter this culture, and egoism in general, all people, including the industrialists, needed to cultivate ‘altruism’, a word he coined around 1850. Comte noted that human beings were distinguished not only by their intelligence but also by their sociability. (He had read the phrenologist Gall and philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, who highlighted people’s innate sympathies.) Both intellectual development and emotional growth were interrelated and were crucial to social unity and progress. The mind and heart had to work together to overcome egoism, which was strong in all humans. To encourage intellectual growth and especially feelings of altruism, especially through constant exercise, Comte outlined his Religion of Humanity in the Système. In many respects the religion was a cult of the dead. People would worship individuals, such as Aristotle, Dante, and Joan of Arc, who had contributed to society. They would also worship women, such as mothers and wives, who had influenced them personally. These institutionalised forms of worship ensured immortality in the only way possible in a secular society, by preserving the memory of important figures in the history of civilisation and in one’s personal life. Showing his familiarity with Catholicism and the cult of the French Revolution, Comte instituted an elaborate Positivist Calendar, a set of nine sacraments, public festivals and rituals, positivist prayers, positivist schools, new Temples of Humanity, and a rich artistic and literary culture. The point was to make sure people studied Humanity, felt emotional attachment to it, and acted in its behalf.

Some scholars have asserted that Comte was retreating from the secular positivism outlined in the Cours. They attribute his ‘second career’ to his failed love affair with de Vaux or to his mental instability. Yet Humanity was not a regression to theology or a metaphysical entity because it was composed of real human beings. There was continuity in his intellectual trajectory, not a sudden break. Before he met Clotilde de Vaux, Comte had emphasised the need for a positivist church and a spiritual power to promote moral reform, the importance of the emotions in shaping our actions and ideas and in securing human happiness, and his view that people were not solely motivated by reason. Emotional involvement was integral to rational calculations.

Affected by both Enlightenment scepticism and the Romantics’ emphasis on the spiritual, emotional side of human nature, Comte renounced God but still believed people needed faith, that is, a belief system, to direct their actions and guide their emotions and values. Religion combined faith, that is, a system of intellectual beliefs, and love, which was a moral impetus. He defended his use of the term ‘religion’ by explaining that the essence of religion was creating interconnections between people. Indeed, his motto in the last years of his life was ‘Love as principle, order as basis, progress as end’. Emotional solidarity was as crucial as intellectual harmony in the making of a stable, progressive society. Increasingly cognisant of the role of the emotions in shaping our ideas and actions, Comte devised a seventh science, morality, to study the individual. Love needed to be at the basis of social consensus. One of his mottos was ‘Live for others’.

Influenced by the theocrat Joseph de Maistre, Comte envisioned a strong spiritual power that would socialise people throughout their lives. Especially through their control of the educational system, these positivist priests would shape people’s beliefs, opinions, and habits and counter the selfish temporal power. To fulfil their role and direct the temporal power to be more socially responsible, they needed the help of workers and women, whom Comte regarded as preserved from the shallow, materialist culture of his era. They could encourage people to strive towards the common good and help provide moral guidance and pressure.

Eager to find followers after feeling underappreciated by scientists and other intellectuals, Comte hoped workers and women would support his cause. As workers became more militant in the 1840s, he attempted to simplify his ideas for them in Discours sur l’esprit positif (A Discourse on the Positive Spirit), in 1844. He supported the workers’ cause in the early months of the Revolution of 1848, including their demand for the right to work and to make associations, and targeted them in a second manifesto of his philosophy, the Discours sur l’ensemble du positivisme (A General View of Positivism), written in 1848.

However, when workers did not flock to his newly created positivist club, the Positivist Society, because of their preference for socialism, he turned at the end of his life to conservatives. He spoke out in favour of Napoleon III’s dictatorship, hoping to convert him to positivism, though he later changed his mind and condemned him for being an imperialist like his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he, Comte, despised. Then he wrote Appel aux Conservateurs in 1855, which targeted people on the right. But all of this rooting around for supporters muddied his message and seemed counterproductive.

Having read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women as a young man, Comte also appealed to women whom he addressed in the Catéchisme positiviste (Positivist Catechism) (1852), which featured a woman asking a positivist priest a number of doctrinal questions. He claimed women would be in the ‘first place’ in the positivist society for as experts in love, they would be moral agents, helping to make people more sociable and society more compassionate. They would work in salons to shape public opinion. Yet Comte tended to patronise women and idealise them in keeping with the nineteenth-century ideology of the separation of spheres. They were alleged to be morally superior to men; they were not to work or to engage in politics but remain devoted to the family.

Comte intended his Religion of Humanity to be universal; it would bring together everyone on earth around common beliefs, sentiments, and goals. But he did not adhere to the French tradition of political centralisation. He imagined the earth divided into five hundred republics of the same approximate size. Going against the trends of his age, he did not support liberalism, nationalism, or imperialism. Having lived through monarchies, empires, and republics, Comte did not believe in the efficacy of political solutions alone. Every society needed a government, especially because the increasing division of labour that was necessary for progress weakened social bonds. Yet governmental reforms were limited because social phenomena obeyed natural laws. As the state’s coercive functions would decrease in the future, religion would take on more of the burden of ensuring social solidarity. All the small republics would converge in collective activity to help Humanity rather than fight each other as rivals or dominate or enslave other peoples. War would cease, and everyone would work to improve themselves and their social and natural environments. Comte insisted on respect for the earth, which he called the ‘Great Fetish’.

Citing this article:
Pickering, Mary. Religion of Humanity and the positive state. 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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