- Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography
Mary Pickering has spent thirty years of her life working on her biography of Auguste Comte, and the resulting two thousand or so pages are evidence of the amount of research and documentation involved. The third and last volume is devoted to the final decade of his life; more specifically, it studies in detail his Système de politique positive and the development of his "Religion de l'humanité" as well as the period leading up to the death of the self-proclaimed Great Priest of Humanity himself.
To the extent that Comte is still present in the general consciousness, he is seen as the man who, having been secretary to Saint-Simon, eventually broke with him and went on to invent sociology and to launch Positivism as a pervasive influence in the nineteenth century. That view is not without merit, although many of those who related [End Page 179] to him in one way or another fell away as Comte became more intolerant and developed ideas that they found unacceptable. John Stuart Mill was an Englishman who eventually distanced himself from Comte; in France, Émile Littré, originally sympathetic to Comte's thought, ended up being considered a traitor to the cause because he was unwilling to follow Comte in the arguably eccentric way he was heading. This was partly because of what Pickering refers to as "Comte's interpersonal problems" (110), but also a result of the work he produced. E. Caro, in an article on "La Religion Positiviste", is quoted as declaring: "If boredom can have its heroism, we are a hero" (388). Ernest Renan, often (although incorrectly) seen as a Positivist, had this to say in his L'Avenir de la science of 1848-9: "En un mot, M. Comte n'entend rien aux sciences de l'humanité, parce qu'il n'est pas philologue." Similarly, Hippolyte Taine, in an article of 1864, wrote that, like most people, he had a fragmentary knowledge of Comte: "on avait parcouru des extraits ou des comptes rendus de ses ouvrages, et l'on s'en était tenu là, non sans bonnes raisons, du moins apparentes."
The story told by Pickering in this volume goes a long way to showing why Comte did not meet with universal acclaim. The titles of her second and third chapters ("Comte's Stumblings"; "The Vicissitudes of Positivism during the Early Empire") indicate the uncertain path he appeared to be following. There are eccentricities, such as the view that lawyers and doctors should be done away with because they are men (17-18). He is concerned with promoting women as superior to men: they were the "agents of love and morality in society" (62). Later, he goes so far as to see men, driven by sex, as being superfluous to the continuation of the species; the notion is related to the idea of the virgin mother and his cult of Clotilde de Vaux, but it also has possible physiological consequences, as Pickering explains: "The implication was that the genitalia would wither away through disuse and semen would decrease" (325). Was Comte aware that this kind of idea had been debunked during the eighteenth century in Diderot's Le Rêve de d'Alembert, where Mlle de Lespinasse fantasises about the consequences of overindulgence in sex? However that may be, women are put in the curious situation of being both superior and a source of authority, and destined to maintain their position as a mother with a strictly domestic role. They were nevertheless expected to be revolutionary and to complete the proletarian revolution "just as the latter consolidated the bourgeois revolution" (62). Comte even "sought to create a primarily working-class elite to seize political power" (95): urban, one supposes (including men?), since peasants had to understand "that the subordination of the countryside toward the towns always constitutes the first law of civilization" (58).
His political stance was not in fact a simple one. Humanity's movement through the three stages—theological, metaphysical, positive—should...