Polity in a cosmic context

Comte had an acute feeling for the way humanity is dependent on astronomical conditions – assume small changes in the elliptical orbit of Earth, in the inclination of Ecliptic, and life, at least life as we know it, would have been impossible. Humanity, the proper study of sociology, is closely connected to the Earth, the human planet, “with its two liquid envelopes.” In spite of the Copernican revolution, Earth remains for each of us the firm, unshakable ground upon which everything stands.

See for instance what the System (t.II, p. 285; English translation p. 237) says about fatherland and the way “the Tent, the Car or the Ship, are to the nomad family a sort of moveable Country, connecting the Family or the Horde with its material base, as with us the gypsy in his van.” Politics is grounded in geopolitics, where geo retains its etymological meaning – Gaia – and where Earth is understood as a planet in the solar system. This cosmic character of positive polity helps us to understand what could appear as an inconsistency in positive polity. It provides the framework for dealing with a great concern for positivists, namely international relations and more particularly, the relations between East and West. Temporal Localism and Spiritual Centralism. After 1851, Comte proposed to break down France into 19 “intendances.” Such a suggestion is quite puzzling, being incompatible with the point of view usually presented as positive policy. The proposal arises from the contrast between two political traditions – French Jacobin and English liberal: the first opts for local power, the second for centralisation. Comte himself adopts it in his historical lessons; the positivist society takes as its model the “Club des Jacobins” and what he says about Paris follows this line of thought. Hence the idea that Comte is a supporter of centralisation, an interpretation Hayek later used to characterize his thought. But that is a one-sided reading, which does not take account of what Comte always gave as his main point in politics – the necessary distinction between spiritual and temporal power. He complained it was not understood in this respect and we have here a very good example of the effect of this blindness. According the kind of power you are considering, the situation changes totally. Centralisation applies only to spiritual power (Comte clearly has in mind the Papacy) and temporal power is by nature local. There are a lot of passages where the correlation is clearly stated. This follows from the fact that the mind does not know boundaries – a spiritual power has no choice but to be catholic, universal. Its domain is the planet Earth. From this, we have at least two consequences. The first is a strong interest in European reconstruction, a political priority between 1815 and 1820. The second is the realization that States as we know them are a historical product, which did not exist before 1500, and there is no reason to believe that they will exist for ever. Hence his proposal to break down France in 19 “intendance.” The extension of temporal power is not allowed to go beyond territories like Belgium or Corsica.

From West to East: Paris to Constantinople.

In spite of his anti-colonialism, Comte’s view of history remained Euroentric. In world history, he distinguished between two stages – one was common to all peoples, another took place only in Europe. As the place where positive thinking appeared and developed, Europe is the elite of humanity. But now that positivism is established, the question arises – how to spread the religion of humanity? The “question d’Orient” was a great concern for positivists. Comte wrote extensively about the Crimean War and the conflict between Russia and Turkey. They are not part of the “Occidental Republic” but they raise questions about its legitimate extension. Both belong to Eastern Europe and are struggling for hegemony, but which one has the best claim? Remember that Comte wrote letters to the Tsar and also to the Sultan or his Vizir. Comte sided at first with Russia but later retracted and ended up more sympathetic to Turkey. If you introduce religious considerations (the Sultan was also the Caliph), it raises the question of the relationship between two monotheisms. Positivists discussed extensively the respective merits of Christianity and Islam. In this respect, the foundation of Constantinople,1890-Constantinople-Scutari the splitting of Roman Empire, and the Great Schism are also to be taken into account. As an Orthodox Christian country, Russia claimed to be in some sense the heir of the Oriental Empire, and he said he wanted to help the Orthodox Slavonic peoples oppressed by the Ottoman Empire. Comte thought Paris was the world capital of his time and he planned to write a book about it – “la ville habitée par ceux qui n’y sont pas nés” was to supplant Rome as capital of the new spiritual power. As for temporal power, the Parisian working class also had a pre-eminent role. The reasons are straightforward – in 1789, 1830, and 1848 it was the direct cause of the collapse of the government through revolution. Furthermore, positivism was urban minded, it did not trust the rural classes who voted for right wing monarchists.  But it was not to remain so for eternity and Comte wanted the capital to be switched later on to Constantinople. Turks were greatly appreciative of the positivist position. Ahmed Reza, an influent politician, was overtly positivist. Atatürk and the Young Turks were strongly influenced by them. The secular position represented a solution to many of the problems of the Empire. It would also solve many of today’s problems, if only enough countries were prepared to adopt it.


Images: 1. Asa Smith, Smith’s Illustrated Astronomy, (New York City: Cady & Burgess, 1850). 2. Charles Meryon, La Morgue (the Mortuary, Paris). 1854. Etching. [The morgue, formerly an abbatoir, built in 1568, was located in the Île de la Cité, the epicenter of Paris. Subsequently the building was moved. The composition has a contrasts the emotions of the impersonal crowd with the pathos of the mourners.] 3. Mosque and street, Scutari, Constantinople (color photochrome, between 1890 and 1900).

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