Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de (1760–1825)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

Article Summary

An influential French social theorist, Saint-Simon propounded a philosophy of history and an account of the future organization of industrial society. He predicted a ‘golden age’, where harmony between individual capacities and social structures, reflected in a reordering of ‘temporal’ and ‘spiritual’ power, would overcome disorder and banish idleness. He has been variously portrayed as a utopian socialist, the founder of sociology and a prescient madman.

Saint-Simon’s life was eventful, even if the more apocryphal details of the hagiography transmitted by his followers – including his descent from Charlemagne, being tutored by d’Alembert, childhood imprisonment, and marriage proposal to Madame de Staël – are omitted. As a commissioned French officer he participated in the American Wars of Independence, was wounded and imprisoned by British forces, and commended for bravery by the American government. Following his release, Saint-Simon pursued an unsuccessful canalization project in Panama before returning to France. During the Revolution, he (prudently) renounced his title, underwent a ‘republican baptism’, and made (and subsequently lost in litigation) a fortune speculating on the property market – his brief incarceration during the Terror was the result of mistaken identity. From 1802 Saint-Simon devoted his energies to developing and promoting his distinctive views on social organization in a torrent of books, pamphlets, prospectuses, articles and letters. The interpretative difficulties created by the diversity of these projects are compounded by the frequency of joint and disputed authorship, his opportunistic willingness to adapt his emphasis to imagined audiences as varied as the European proletariat and the French king, and the indifference to consistency that accompanied his predilection for descriptive detail. His productivity was punctuated by an unconsummated and hastily terminated marriage, a period in a private mental hospital, trial and acquittal on charges of subversion, and a suicide attempt (involving seven shots to his head) which resulted in the loss of his right eye.

In advocating a ‘science of social organization’, Saint-Simon depicted himself as emulating physiology in applying the methodology of the natural sciences – basing arguments on ‘observed and examined facts’, rather than revelation or deductions from reason – to the study of humankind. History, he claimed, was driven by the progression of the human mind, in which successive advances in understanding are embodied in a (twelve-stage) chronological narrative. In its most schematic form – as promulgated by Saint-Amand Bazard – history is structured into ‘organic’ epochs (in which ideas and institutions are in harmony) divided by ‘critical’ interludes (where social arrangements lag behind the progress of intellect). Development proceeded from the ancient and Christian worlds (grounded in polytheism and theism respectively), through the contemporary period of transition, to a final ‘golden age’ of industrialism (founded on positive science). The role of human agency was limited to hastening the arrival, rather than determining the content, of ‘the perfection of the social order’ that lay ahead.

‘Social physiology’ revealed inequalities in human nature, both between ‘Africans’ and ‘Asians’ (the ‘descendants of Cain’) on the one hand and ‘Europeans’ (the ‘children of Abel’) on the other, and within the latter category, where one of three capacities – emotive, rational and motive – would typically predominate within any particular individual. This psychology motivates the class structure of industrialism in which social differentiation according to capacity – into artists, scientists and ‘industrials’ (the latter group including wage labourers and owners of capital) – is functional to both the individual aim of fulfilment (since ‘every citizen must naturally tend to confine himself to the role for which he is most suited’) and the social goal of production (which requires the invention, examination and execution of useful projects). Saint-Simon portrays the shared ends of industrial society in moral terms, but reduces morality to the general happiness which is in turn identified with productivity – ‘work is the essence of all virtues’. The same reductive strategy defines society as ‘the ensemble and union of men engaged in useful work’, describes individuals as free when they are ‘unrestricted in productive work’, and reveals ‘true equality’ as consisting in an individual’s right to benefits ‘exactly proportionate’ to the contribution of that person (and their capital) to productivity.

The universal human drive to seek power would in future be sublimated, deflected away from immoral and destructive expression in conflict between individuals and into a cooperative victory over nature. Politics would be transformed into a positive science, developing ‘laws of hygiene’ to eradicate idleness (‘a state of sickness in man’), whilst ‘government’ would transmogrify into a much reduced ‘administrative’ structure facilitating production (divided accordingly into Chambers of Invention, Examination and Execution). His scientism and belief in natural inequality led Saint-Simon to assign ‘temporal power’ to those most competent to exercise it (the most successful ‘industrials’). ‘Spiritual power’ would be the responsibility of a clerisy of scientists and artists, providing the moral and educational leadership necessary for social stability. Initially Saint-Simon advocated a ‘Religion of Newton’, with its own forms of worship and dogma, as an alternative to Christianity (optimistically suggesting that existing clergy might retrain for the new order). Increasingly, however, he portrayed his ‘holy enterprise’ as embodying the ‘true spirit’ of a Christianity uncontaminated by the heresies of the Church. This ‘New Christianity’ would utilize rhetoric, music and imagery to ‘fill the souls of the faithful with feelings of terror or joy’ designed ‘to direct their ardour…towards works of general utility’. Institutionalized cooperation between the ‘temporal’ and ‘spiritual’ powers of Europe would lead to a confederation ‘without wars, catastrophes or political revolution’, in which a ‘new family sentiment of Europeanism’ would supersede competing patriotisms.

Saint-Simon’s legacy resists summary. Any adequate account would include and assess his impact on his distinguished and estranged secretaries (Auguste Comte, Augustin Thierry) and claims of influence upon a succession of renowned social and political theorists (John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx), writers (Heinrich Heine, George Sand) and musicians (Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz). The Saint-Simonian ‘movement’ did not survive intact in France, but fractured into the worldly and messianic currents that Saint-Simon had sought to incorporate. The achievements of the former, a distinguished group of engineers, mathematicians, economists and bankers, include the Suez Canal Company, the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée railway and the Crédit mobilier. The latter, a more wayward group under Père Enfantin, scandalized Paris with the elaborate public rituals of their community at Ménilmontant and talk of an androgynous (and seemingly lascivious) God, before embarking on a crusade to North Africa in search of the ‘Female Messiah’.

Citing this article:
Leopold, David. Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de (1760–1825), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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