Sunday, 17 May 2015

THE SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY OF COMTE.*

Of the many whom the pen of Mr. Frederick Harrison has made acquainted with the existence of a Positive Church, comparatively few are aware that it aims at a complete reorganisation of society. It is not necessary, indeed, that English Positivists should accept the whole scheme of a new social order as it was laid down by their master, Auguste Comte, seeing that many of the details were mere day dreams and products of the imagination. Nevertheless, they are pledged to a system, the object of which is to settle the whole human race into harmonious groups in accordance with certain principles. Comte professed to investigate and discover the laws that ought to exist in a well-ordered community, and then founded the church to carry them into practice.

The investigation of social phenomena is by no means a new branch of study, for it was well known to the Greeks, among whom "politics" formed part of a liberal and enlightened education. During the middle ages, however, it was unheard of. The church, which claimed to be the source and origin of all authority, supported the established constitution of society, with its kings and nobles, monks and artisans, as if it rested on a divine precept. As long as that view prevailed inquiry was impossible. When it was preached that aristocracy existed by a divine right, that it was the duty of every man to be content with his station, and to yield a passive obedience to the mandates of his superiors there was no need to speculate further on the best organisation of the different classes of the community. It was only when the nations began to throw off the ecclesiastical and feudal yoke that this question confronted them; not till the French Revolution, which absolutely shattered the old fabric of society into nothingness, that a solution of it became a matter of pressing necessity. That convulsion broke the strongest pillars on which the state rested. The throne was destroyed, and with it fell the authority and power of the church, so that, to save the country from anarchy, it was indispensable to raise the edifice of government on a new basis. Thence have arisen endless controversies and numberless schemes to determine by what principles communities should be guided and regulated.

There are two merits that stand out clearly in Comte's work, though his opinions have never obtained any wide acceptance. One is, that he recognises that, as with men so with nations, there is a continual process of development, and that the perfect order of society can only be conceived by following out the actual line of progress. With the bare recognition of this fact, however, his merit ceases. His own contribution to historical inquiry was singularly crude and meagre. He divided the history of the world broadly into three stages, which were named : the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. In the first stage men were held to their duty as citizens by religious and mythological ideas and by fear of the gods. As these beliefs waned and lost their power, they became imbued with metaphysical conceptions, which were equally doomed to decay. In the third stage, which he regarded as near at hand if not actually present, society was to be guided only by positive scientific knowledge of the laws of nature to the exclusion of theological and poetical ideas. Mr. Caird has no difficulty in showing that such a sketch of the framework of history is miserably defective, that its divisions are artificial, that religion does not necessarily relax its hold with the advance of knowledge, and that there are problems for which the actual discoveries of science are utterly inadequate; so that to inaugurate a society which takes heed only of the positive results of science, and despises the influence of religion on the conduct of citizens, is simply to ignore some of the most powerful factors of human life. It is only interesting as one of the first rude attempts to trace existing institutions to their historical origin. 

The other merit of Comte is that he thoroughly understands and clearly states the question which has to be met both in philosophy and in practical politics. The difficulty lay before him in the actual state of France. On the one hand, there was danger of anarchy from the extreme partisans of the Revolution, if they should ever be able to clutch at power; on the other, there was the peril of a reaction, which would only have increased class hatreds and embittered political feuds. It was perfectly obvious that either of these would mean ruin. To secure the utmost stability for the state violent agitations must be avoided, and the different classes must live in harmony. But how is this harmony to be guaranteed? An English man would probably answer, that with the right of free speech and free debate these things gradually settle themselves, and would point to the history of labour disputes as showing how in actual practice one class learns to respect another. But Comte, who was a Frenchman and a philosopher, fancied that they must be regulated artificially and in accordance with his philosophical principles. France has been the classic land for paper constitutions of society. Her thinkers regenerate the world as boys fly kites, by floating ideas that have no connexion with the earth save in the grasp of the man who holds them. Fourier, St Simon, Prudhon, and many more have resolved to bring about the millennium by the simple process of publishing descriptive sketches. But of all the systems Comte's is in many ways the most strange.
  Somewhat to the reader's surprise, he begins by insisting that the bond of all union is religion. Religion, however, is to be delivered from the worship hitherto associated with it, and to centre in the worship of humanity. Like Buddha, Comte seems to think that every good and perfect thing comes from man to man :—

" What good gift hath my brother but it came
Through uttermost renouncing and strong strife ?

Industries, inventions, knowledge, wisdom, great thoughts, and noble deeds are all due to man's activity. It is, therefore, to humanity, he argues, that gratitude, and reverence, and love are due. But such respect, which amounts to devotion, cannot be given to individuals of the race, partly because progress really results from the co-operation of all, and partly because individuals are so far from de serving worship that it is the mission of the thinker to prove and elevate them. No man is worthy of religious reverence; but humanity, taken as a whole, is to be put in the place of the Supreme Being, Giver of all things. To worship humanity and to reform men are the two curious sides of the Positivist Society. To which it might easily be objected that, separated from the individuals who compose mankind, the word humanity is no more than an abstract noun denoting certain qualities, and as much a mental product as any mythological tale or metaphysical conception that ever existed.

Having thus come to the conclusion that the proper object of worship is humanity, the next question is to secure the social well being of men. This can only be accomplished by restoring a willing subordination on the part of the lower orders to the superior, for where the due gradations of class are wanting confusion and anarchy will result. But, on the other hand, to avoid oppression it will be necessary to reduce the state to the dimensions of a city, with its complement of rural domain. Then the division of labour must be made as complete as possible, bankers taking the first place, other capitalists following them, and the workmen standing next in their several ranks. Further, in curious contrast to all modern tendencies, the offices of state are to be filled, not by election, but by appointment of the superiors, the choice of rulers by the people being denounced as anarchic.

In this model city the priesthood of humanity are to form a class altogether separate from the world. That motives of personal interest may be excluded they are to be paid low salaries. They are to be educated in every science, and especially in sociology and morals—studies which will directly benefit their fellow-citizens. But on no account will they be allowed to interfere directly in practical affairs, their business not being to manage politics or business, but to keep alive the general principles which are necessary to the maintenance of the city, and its advancement in culture. It will be their duty to remind men of what they owe to humanity, and what they should do for the world, in order that they may increase its knowledge and comfort. The sole function of the priesthood will be to prepare men to live for others that they may afterwards live in posterity—which is the only conception of immortality approved of by the Comtist. For this purpose they will rely principally upon scientific generalisations, but they will be permitted also to call art and poetry to their aid, since it is indispensable not only to convince the intellect but to enlist the feeling of the community. Many more details of the citizen life, which Comte regards as perfect, are given by the author, whose description equals in minuteness that of the Holy City in the Apocalypse.

As Mr. Caird points out, this scheme is nothing more or less than a revival of the old mediaeval system. The features of the world that existed before the Reformation are substantially reproduced. Customs which were sanctioned by the church and identified with the era of chivalry masquerade under a new name. The priesthood of humanity closely resembles that former priesthood which fixed a great gulf between things secular and things spiritual, and exalted the latter above the former. The smallness of the state corresponds to the innumerable divisions into which Europe was broken by feudalism. The organisation of classes is identical with that of the middle ages, save that financiers take the place of landowners. The appointment of officials by the superiors is substituted for that of inheritance by birth. There can be no mistake regarding the identity. The new building of Comte is merely the old temple, with the altar re-dedicated to an unknown God.

Ideal states—at least when depicted with any minuteness of detail—have always been reflections of current and dying opinions embodiments of the past rather than prophecies of the future. Thus Plato's Republic contains a sketch of the Greek state as it was completed and perfected in the mind of a thinker who was under no obligation to compromise with parties, but as an ideal, whether for Greece or for any other country, it is worse than useless. So of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, and the host of kindred works, it can only be said that they are pleasing pictures of a happy existence which has no connexion with the actual tendencies of the world. Comte shares the fate of such, and the actual plan of his city has no more practical value than the dreams of ideal mongers and millennium seekers, and the whole class of harmless optimists. He belongs to the past more than to the future. His system is typical of a reaction against the course of democracy and of history. Fearful of the effect of new ideas, he yields to them so far as to make humanity the object of worship and the end of government, but endeavours to direct them into old channels. On the basis of democratic thought and feeling and hope be labours to restore aristocracy and monarchy. But the spirit of the age proves too much for him, and while he denies the right of electing their representatives to the governed, he concedes to them the final remedy against mis-government, rebellion. " The right of insurrection is the ultimate resource," he says, "with which no society should allow itself to dispense." Sacred right of insurrection. This was the cry of the first French Revolution, and the cause of all the anarchy that followed. An ideal system tempered by sedition only leads back to the confusion which it professes to prevent The endeavour of a good government must ever be so to guard and encourage the rights and liberties of the people that insurrection will hardly be possible, and, if it should occur, may be treated as a crime.

The stability of the modern state, as Mr. Caird seeks to demonstrate in opposition to Comte, rests on two things. Every class has the power of acting, expressing itself, and agitating in a legal and constitutional manner, and no one class is in such a position that it can ignore or override the legitimate requirements of another. These two conditions represent the harmony that is practically attainable in the world. United they are the pedestal on which freedom stands, and if one class should try to make itself wholly independent of another it will be checked by the fact that it has to share in the suffering which it causes. Thus the capitalist and the labourer are so closely dependent upon each other that they must come to working arrangements, for an injury to one inevitably does harm to both. Such harmony may come very gradually, and may be less ideally complete than that of philosophy, but the measures of the state and of statesmen must be practical, and must run on natural lines, and no greater hurt could be done by anyone than by the doctrinaire, were it possible for him to carry out his artificial terms. To push an idea to its extreme, without regard to the actual wants, necessities, and feelings of different classes, to cast the whole community in one hard mould, is that worst of all political faults—a blunder.

* The Social Philosophy of Comte, by Edward Caird, LL.D. Glasgow; James Maclehose and Sons,1883

The Australasian 12 December 1885

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