There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.
His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.
Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:
It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.
Philosophical history is littered with defunct geniuses, but a quick perusal of Comte's work leaves a surprising impression: this is one lost philosopher who should not have been lost. His once-controversial scientific method is now common practice, and his "sociology" has grown into a standard (though, lately, dull) academic discipline. But Comte's idealistic visions of a rational society -- progressive, liberal, egalitarian, pacifist -- caused him to fall out of favor in the century that followed his own, a century dominated by the bitter technology and propaganda of war, racism and genocide. An optimistic Auguste Comte book can seem like a trivial and inconsequential thing in a world that has largely given up on hope for itself.
The sentence that follows the paragraph above in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says it all:
None of this activity survived the First World War.
Indeed, what of humanity did survive the First World War? The Church of Positivism never completely closed its doors, and you can still visit the Maison d'Auguste Comte et Chapelle de l'Humanite in Paris today (these great photos were taken by dalbera). He is no longer taught in schools, and only a few budget-bin editions of his selected writings are available in book form today. His invention of the word "altruism" may seem like a questionable honor in a world that often identifies altruism with weakness.
But there's a problem here: Auguste Comte's ideas were good ones, and some of his insights seem to stand in advance of common wisdom today. His concept of natural altruism has been beaten down by free-market capitalists and followers of Ayn Rand, but the beating has not been fatal. His belief in the possibility of a future world society bound by mutual respect and love has never been refuted in words; it has only been refuted by actions, by the world's descent into worse depths of cruelty and barbarism throughout the 20th Century.
Indeed, the very obscurity of Auguste Comte's legacy today seems to indicate something hopeful. How is it possible for such an influential thinker to be completely "disappeared" from modern awareness? His memory does not seem to have faded; rather, it was buried under a mound of corpses. It may be a testament to the potency of Auguste Comte's ideals that their traces have been so fully erased in our current times. It's amazing what treasures can be found if we only look into our own intellectual past.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Why Steven Pinker's Book is Important. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Starkest Question.