Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Catechism of Positive Religion

Review of:
The Catechism of Positive Religion (by Auguste Comte, 1858).

Auguste Comte, who not long since died—or, to use his own language, became subjective—is a great riddle to the more intelligent class of our own countrymen. On the one hand, they observe that his name is mentioned and his theories discussed with the deepest respect by some of our ablest writers and thinkers, whilst, on the other, they find him invoked as the patron of utterly wild and extravagant fancies. A man whom Mr. Mill, Mr. Grote, and Mr. Richard Congreve unite in delighting to honour, cannot but be a person of a very peculiar kind. We believe the fact to be, that between his earlier and his later theories a great gulf is fixed—a gulf erected by the development of a sort of mental disease, to which men of powerful and capacious understandings whose life is passed in speculation are occasionally subject. In the earlier part of his career, M. Comte performed the exploit of advancing in a systematic form those doctrines upon the objects, the limits, and the method of pursuing inquiries of all sorts which are usually associated with the name of Positive Philosophy; and he undoubtedly succeeded in framing several general propositions which have exercised a wide influence, over contemporary speculation. Perhaps his most celebrated effort in this direction was that which resulted in the doctrine so much valued and insisted on by Mr. Grote, respecting the natural tendency of the various states of mind which issue respectively in fetish-worship, polytheism, monotheism, and finally in the Positive spirit, to succeed each other in a regular order of succession. Whatever may have been the truth of his opinions upon this and kindred subjects, no one could refuse them the praise of very great ability. Indeed, the popular impression about him was that of dislike, not unmixed with a certain awe, inspired by the impression that, being an unrefuted impugner of all opinions usually held sacred, he possessed an acknowledged philosophical eminence which invested his opinions with formidable importance.

To this early state of mind—in which he exercised so strong an influence over men of the very highest order of understanding —a later condition appears to have succeeded, which can only be described by saying that he seems to have gone mad with vanity, retaining, however, in that condition, many of the most characteristic features of his former self. His later works contain a system of positive, politics and a system of positive religion, which aim at nothing short of the entire reconstruction of human society—a result modestly, indicated in the following remarkable sentiment, with which the work before us begins:--
‘In the name of the Past and of the Future, the servants of humanity, both its philosophical and practical servants, come forward to claim as their due the general direction of the world. Their object is to constitute at last a real providence in all departments, moral, intellectual, and material; consequently they exclude, once for all, from political supremacy, all the different servants of God—Catholic, Protestant, or Deist—as being at once behind-hand and a cause of disturbance. . . . . With this uncompromising announcement, [he continues] on Sunday, Oct. 19, 1851, in the Palais Cardinal, after a summary of five hours, I ended my third course of Philosophical Lectures on the General History of Humanity—‘
to the unspeakable relief, we should suppose, of his audience. The volume before us specifies the principles upon which, the means by which, and the consummation to which, the servants of humanity propose to direct the world; and it also states the view which M. Comte himself took, towards the end of his life, of our existing condition. We are living, it appears, in a time when anarchy would become universal, and society be dissolved, if it were not for the influence of women, who, by mere force of sentiment, avert “the moral evils naturally resulting from a chronic state of mental alienation” under which Western Europe has long been labouring. This madness has infected all the educated classes, and many of the poor. Women are for the most part free from it, and the poor or the “proletariate,” as Mr. Congreve calls them in his French-English, enjoy a similar immunity to a smaller extent. To these two classes accordingly M. Comte addresses himself. Their unsophisticated minds will understand and adopt his views—before the end of the century Europe will have been altogether reorganized, and the great transitional period of the Western Republic will be reckoned amongst the things that were. In accordance with this notion, the Catechism is composed of a series of conversations between a priest and a woman, in which the Worship, the Doctrine, and the Régime, or system of life appropriate to the new faith, are successively delineated.

M. Comte sets out with the assertion that “a state of perfect unity” is the distinctive mark of man's existence, both as an individual and in society, and that religion consists in regulating each one's individual nature with a view to this unity. It appears from other parts of the book, that by “unity” he understands the capacity which a variety of different objects may have of being comprehended under one general formula. If any expression could be framed so general that all affairs, human and terrestrial, might be included in its terms (as all the planetary relations may be expressed in terms of gravitation), that general law of nature would, if we understand him rightly, constitute scientific unity. This, however, is impossible. Man on the one hand, and the world on the other, have no known connexion. They form unrelated spheres of study. Of the world no account whatever can be given, except that its motions, and those of all the inanimate substances which compose it, are regulated by laws, some of which we know, whilst others must for ever remain unknown. The known laws constitute fate—the unknown, chance. Their results may be modified by human power (acting according to its own laws) but that is all. With regard to man, it will appear on due examination that he possesses a variety of instincts some of which are social and others personal. He is not susceptible of being exhaustively described by any set of formulas yet ascertained, and therefore there is no external, or as M. Comte calls it, objective unity of which he is obliged to consider himself as forming a part. It is, however, open to him to form a subjective unity, i.e., a unity existing in his own mind, of which he may consider himself as a part, and with a view to which he would do well to regulate his conduct; and thus his religion will be that system which points out to him what that ideal is which he ought to frame, and which, when framed, ought to regulate his whole life. We are not informed why anybody need trouble himself about any unity at all. M. Comte seems to assume, as a self-evident first principle, that it cannot be dispensed with, and he details at considerable length what this unity is. It is his substitute for God, and is in his own words “the Goddess Humanity,” who can only be properly represented by “a picture of a woman of thirty years of age, with a child in her arms.” The goddess consists of “the whole of human beings, past, present, and future”—unworthy members (those we suppose who do not feel the want of unity) being alone excluded. Their loss, however, is to be compensated by the assumption into the goddess of the nobler animals. The great leading peculiarity of the new goddess is unquestionably to be found in the mode of her existence. Human beings have two existences—the objective and the subjective. The former is that present life with which we are all familiar—the latter consists solely in being remembered after death by our friends and admirers. The existing generation of men are thus not only an essential part of their goddess, but they are, de die in diem, the creators of the rest of her. So that, as M. Comte pathetically remarks, “the development, and, of course, also the preservation of the Great Being must depend on the free services of its different children.” The “subjective existence” of the dead (that is, the fact that they are remembered by the living) appears to M. Comte, and we suppose to his admiring translator, a vast improvement on the Christian theory of a future life, and a sublime remedy for their debasing selfishness.

Having made his God, M. Comte tells us how it, or she—for he uses the pronouns indifferently—is to be worshipped. Nothing can exceed the value which he sets upon prayer. “Never can the three aspects of human life be united with so intimate a union as in our admirable effusions of gratitude and love towards our great Divinity, or her worthy representatives and organs.”  These effusions consist in retiring three times a day, to think how fond we are of our race. The first prayer is in the morning, the second, at midday, and the third “will be said when in bed, and ought as far as possible to continue till we sail asleep in order the better to ensure a calm brain at the time when we are least protected from evil tendencies.” As mere philanthropic aspirations would have a certain tendency to vagueness, these prayers are to consist principally of the invocation of guardian angels. Every family furnishes, three types for this purpose—that of the mother, the wife, and the daughter, who respectively typify veneration, attachment, and kindness. M. Comte does not say which of the three is to be prayed to when the devout positivist wants to go to sleep. The choice would not be flattering. Besides thinking about his womankind, a man may also pray by singing, drawing, or repeating poetry—a convenient practice, says M. Comte, because it saves the trouble of invention. There may be something in that.

We are not prepared to deny that it would be more improving to spend an hour on Sunday in grinding a barrel-organ than to listen for the same time to certain preachers whom we could name. The “family types" may be worshipped on a scale gradually more and more extended till domestic takes the place of personal worship; and above this, again, rises social worship, which consists in the reception of nine sacraments marking the principal events of life. They are—presentation, in which new-born children are presented to the priesthood for the service of humanity; initiation, at fourteen years of age, when the public education of the boy begins; admission, at twenty-one, when the youth “is authorized freely to serve humanity;" destination, or the choice of a profession at twenty-eight; marriage, which ought to take place between twenty-eight and thirty-five; maturity, at forty-two, “when we impose on the servant of humanity the responsibility which is now complete;” retirement at sixty-three, when active life is renounced, and the servant of humanity names the successor to his position, whatever it may be—for in this system every profession is regarded as an office; transformation, a parody of extreme unction; and, lastly, incorporation, a sort of canonization for the million, which occurs seven years after death. . The priesthood upon due examination, declare that the deceased belongs to the subjective part of the Great Being, and “the sanctified remains,” which “had previously been deposited in the burial-place of the city . . . .  now take their place for ever in the sacred wood which surrounds the temple of humanity.” Positivists, however, are characteristically incapable of doing without a legion of honour even in heaven. “Every tomb is ornamented with a simple inscription, a bust or a statue, according to the degree of honour awarded.” Women are not to be “incorporated.” expressly, because “the incorporation of the man includes all the worthy auxiliaries of every true servant of humanity, not even excepting the animals who have contributed their aid.”

Such is the Positivist worship. The régime, or organization of society, is even more remarkable. Inasmuch as modern nations are far too large for patriotism, they are to be broken up into communities of about 3,000,000 souls each—Belgium being taken as a model nation. Belgians, as we all know, have much more national feeling and public spirit than Englishmen or Frenchmen. France will form seventeen of such States, and England several more. Ireland will soon separate from us, and “that will lead to the rupture of the artificial bonds which now unite Scotland and even Wales with England proper.” The ultimate result is, that “at the opening of the next century Portugal and Ireland, granting they remain entire, will be the largest republics of the West.” Society will be divided into three classes, the patriciate, the priesthood, and the proletariate. The patriciate will consist of 2000 bankers, 100,000 merchants, 200,000 manufacturers, and 400,000 agriculturists. They are to be the sole owners of property, and the “industrial chiefs” of the 120,000,000 who will form the proletariate of the Western European Republic. “In each separate republic the supreme temporal power will be vested exclusively in three bankers. Before these two hundred triumvirs (triumvirates we suppose), the Western priesthood, acting under the direction of the High Priest of Humanity, will lay in proper form the legitimate claims, of an immense proletariate.” Imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury. “laying the claims of an immense proletariate” before Colonel Waugh, Mr. Humphrey Brown, and Sir John Dean Paul. What a subject for a grand historical picture by Mr. Ward or Mr. Maclise! The priesthood (who are moreover to be doctors, authors, and artists) are to be organized in colleges, or “philosophical Presbyteries," each containing seven priests and three vicars. There are to be 2000 of these colleges in the Western Republic, which will be divided into five churches—the French, the Italian, the Spanish, the English, and the German. The four last are each to have a national superior. Prance is to be under the High Priest of Humanity, who is to live at Paris, with an income of £2400 a year. The national superiors are to have £1200, the priests £480., the vicars £240, and the aspirants, or divinity students £120. They are to renounce all private property, and are, like every one else, to nominate their successors. The High Priest of Humanity alone is to be appointed by the four national superiors. War, in the gross coarse sense of the term, is to be at an end, but certain international strikes are obscurely sketched out as presenting the nearest approach to war which “the normal state” will permit. In case of oppression or unfairness on the part of the triumvirate of bankers, an institution analogous to the orders of chivalry but of a commercial character, is to be set on foot, which will furnish the priesthood with funds to counteract their operation. “Many industrial chiefs, especially amongst the bankers, will in early life enrol themselves as members” of this association. This, however, is only to be an occasional resource. In the normal state of things, the priest and the banker are to live on the best of terms. The regular number of bankers in the West is the same as that of the Positivist temples. Each temple will be naturally under the temporal protectorate of the adjacent banker, who will be commissioned by the triumvirate of the State to transmit the priests their stipends. In private life there is to be a common, education for all. There is to be fasting. People will voluntarily give up wine. Widowhood is to be eternal, and “this alone” will attract all women to the scheme, for “a second marriage must always involve a subjective polygamy.”  The book closes with a sketch of the general history of religion, principally remarkable for the avowal that positivism has a “profound sympathy” for fetishism.

The only explanation of this scheme which we can form is that towards the end of his life M. Comte went mad; and the indescribably ludicrous displays of frantic vanity which this work contains are strong indications both of the source and of the extent of the disease. He tells us that some years back he fell in love (quite in a Platonic way, for “her invariable reserve after some time purified my affection”) with Madame Clotilde de Vaux; that she was the source of his inspiration; that “my career had been that of Aristotle—I should have wanted energy for that of St. Paul but for her;” and that “her glorification is inseparable from mine. It will constitute my most valued reward. She is for all time incorporated into the true Supreme Being, of whom her tender image is allowed to be for me the best representative.” One would like to know what became of her husband.

Any other comment than that which we have already made on this monstrous absurdity would be superfluous, Our only excuse for devoting so much space to what we look upon in such a light is the fact that Mr. Congreve is the translator of the book before us, and that the Westminster Review devotes a grave and elaborate Mr. Congreve is extensively known in article to the subject. Mr. Congreve is extensively known in some portions of English society, and has hitherto been looked upon as at any rate sane; but it is right that the world should know what kind of opinions a man who administers to it so much advice and such sharp rebukes deliberately accepts and endorses.

Saturday Review, May 28, 1858.

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