The Religion of Humanity

By Olaf Simons, Gotha, Saint Paul 22, 227.
My thanks for a lot of intellectual input to Michel Bourdeau, Paris

The little video from the series of 60 Second Adventures in Religion is — although it is such a quick and satirical thing — quite a brilliant take on Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity. It summarises Comte’s theory of the three historical stages from fetishism and monotheism to Positivism, it notes that Comte’s considerations are not that outdated — we have our own movements to establish a religion of atheism, and it gives the critical clue why all these attempts might be doomed to fail: Our modern societies have actually gone into the direction Comte proposed: They started to replace religions with new objects of collective veneration, most importantly in sports. These fields might have a far greater power to replace religions than Comte’s proposal of a point by point replacement:

One thought is fundamental in Comte’s system: we will only see progress where we find replacements and these replacements will only become functional if they can come by the way of developments. Revolutions are a rather dangerous form of progress. Those who lead a revolution will feel tempted to stabilise the revolution itself as the new régime. Progress requires freedom, it comes in developments and it offers true emancipation.

Beyond Atheism

Positivists are, strictly speaking, neither atheists nor are they agnostics. Scientists focus on facts (on statements they can prove with observations) and that is a work in which they neither run into a sphere of transcendence, a field that can supposedly never be observed, nor does this work ever require them to state that there is no God or that one cannot observe God. Positivists explore phenomena. They observe and describe regularities. They make predictions on the basis of these regularities. They observe how things happen, not why, so Comte in his famous passage on atheism.

Atheism is, strictly speaking, a dysfunctional field of thought, deeply rooted in theological thought. The old proofs of God’s existence are now obsolete, the debate proposed by modern atheists is a theological reversal with a production of proofs and indications of his non-existence. The result is stagnation — most visibly in the field of Marxist revolutionary politics where atheism becomes just another dogma to be protected by the revolution. Positivism is a position of pragmatism. The positivist’s question is: what will come after atheism and agnosticism. What is the knowledge we have? How do we actually want to live? This might look like atheism, because it excludes God from all further thought. It is otherwise a position in need of a new differentiation which Comte is eager to make in his General View on Positivism (1848, published again in the first volume of his System of Positive Polity in 1851). We have to confront the “Error of identifying Positivism with Atheism, Materialism, Fatalism, or Optimism. Atheism, like Theology discusses insoluble mysteries”. Positivism is looking for positive knowledge:

I have now described the general spirit of Positivism. But there are two or three points on which some further explanation is necessary, as they are the source of misapprehensions too common and too serious to be disregarded. Of course I only concern myself with such objections as are made in good faith.

The fact of entire freedom from theological belief being necessary before the Positive state can be perfectly attained, has induced superficial observers to confound Positivism with a state of pure negation. Now this state was at one time, and that even so recently as the last century, favourable to progress; but at present in those who unfortunately still remain in it, it is a radical obstacle to all sound social and even intellectual organization. I have long ago repudiated all philosophical or historical connexion between Positivism and what is called Atheism. But it is desirable to expose the error somewhat more clearly.

Atheism is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely, by continuing to seek for new solutions of Theological problems

Atheism, even from the intellectual point of view, is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely, by continuing to seek for new solutions of Theological problems, instead of setting aside all inaccessible researches on the ground of their utter inutility. The true Positive spirit consists in substituting the study of the invariable Laws of phenomena for that of their so-called Causes, whether proximate or primary; in a word, in studying the How instead of the Why. Now this is wholly incompatible with the ambitious and visionary attempts of Atheism to explain the formation of the Universe, the origin of animal life, etc. The Positivist comparing the various phases of human speculation, looks upon these scientific chimeras as far less valuable even from the intellectual point of view than the first spontaneous inspirations of primeval times. The principle of Theology is to explain everything by supernatural Wills. That principle can never be set aside until we acknowledge the search for Causes to be beyond our reach, and limit ourselves to the knowledge of Laws. As long as men persist in attempting to answer the insoluble questions which occupied the attention of the childhood of our race, by far the more rational plan is to do as was done then, that is, simply to give free play to the imagination. These spontaneous beliefs have gradually fallen into disuse, not because they have been disproved, but because mankind has become more enlightened as to its wants and the scope of its powers, and has gradually given an entirely new direction to its speculative efforts. If we insist upon penetrating the unattainable mystery of the essential Cause that produces phenomena, there is no hypothesis more satisfactory than that they proceed from Wills dwelling in them or outside them; an hypothesis which assimilates them to the effect produced by the desires which exist within ourselves. Were it not for the pride induced by metaphysical and scientific studies, it would be inconceivable that any atheist, modern or ancient, should have believed that his vague hypotheses on such a subject were preferable to this direct mode of explanation. And it was the only mode which really satisfied the reason, until men began to see the utter inanity and inutility of all search for absolute truth. The Order of Nature is doubtless very imperfect in every respect; but its production is far more compatible with the hypothesis of an intelligent Will than with that of a blind mechanism. Persistent atheists therefore would seem to be most illogical of theologists: because they occupy themselves with theological problems, and yet reject the only appropriate method of handling them. But the fact is that pure Atheism even in the present day is very rare. What is called Atheism is usually a phase of Pantheism, which is really nothing but a relapse disguised under learned terms, into a vague and abstract form of Fetichism. And it is not impossible that it may lead to the reproduction in one form or other of every theological phase as soon as the check which modern society still imposes on metaphysical extravagance has become somewhat weakened. The adoption of such theories as a satisfactory system of belief, indicates a very exaggerated or rather false view of intellectual requirements, and a very insufficient recognition of moral and social wants. It is generally connected with the visionary but mischievous tendencies of ambitious thinkers to uphold what they call the empire of Reason. In the moral sphere it forms a sort of basis for the degrading fallacies of modern metaphysicians as to the absolute preponderance of self-interest. Politically, its tendency is to unlimited prolongation of the revolutionary position: its spirit is that of blind hatred to the past: and it resists all attempts to explain it on Positive principles, with a view of disclosing the future. Atheism, therefore, is not likely to lead to Positivism except in those who pass through it rapidly as the last and most shortlived of metaphysical phases. And the wide diffusion of the scientific spirit in the present day makes this passage so easy that to arrive at maturity without accomplishing it, is a symptom of a certain mental weakness, which is often connected with moral insufficiency, and is very incompatible with Positivism. Negation offers but a feeble and precarious basis for union: and disbelief in Monotheism is of itself no better proof of a mind fit to grapple with the questions of the day than disbelief in Polytheism or Fetichism, which no one would maintain to be an adequate ground for claiming intellectual sympathy. The atheistic phase indeed was not really necessary, except for the revolutionists of the last century who took the lead in the movement towards radical regeneration of society. The necessity has already ceased; for the decayed condition of the old system makes the need of regeneration palpable to all. Persistence in anarchy, and Atheism is the most characteristic symptom of anarchy, is a temper of mind more unfavourable to the organic spirit, which ought by this time to have established its influence, than sincere adhesion to the old forms. This latter is of course obstructive: but at least it does not hinder us from fixing our attention upon the great social problem. Indeed it helps us to do so: because it forces the new philosophy to throw aside every weapon of attack against the older faith except its own higher capacity of satisfying our moral and social wants. But in the Atheism maintained by many metaphysicians and scientific men of the present day, Positivism, instead of wholesome rivalry of this kind, will meet with nothing but barren resistence. Anti-theological as such men may be, they feel unmixed repugnance for any attempts at social regeneration, although their efforts in the last century had to some extent prepared the way for it. Far, then, from counting upon their support, Positivists must expect to find them hostile: although from the incoherence of their opinions it will not be difficult to reclaim those of them whose errors are not essentially due to pride.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.50-53.

Humanity, the Supreme Being

Once we leave the debate of theologians, atheists and agnostics behind us, we will not only be free in our work as scientists — free to search for the best, the most functional, the most precise theorems. We will be just as free in our role as designers of new societies. Positivism is not aiming at a political revolution. Better societies will arrive wherever they can replace existing structures. That is why it makes sense to develop the entire system that has to offer the conclusive replacement. It alone can show that the replacement is possible and desirable. The religion of positivism is — so Comte against many of his most vocal adherents — not his personal obsessive dream, the dream of a world in which everything is planned. It is the proof that positivism can actually take over. The traditional God-question question — does God exist or not? — leaves the stage and a new question becomes the new cornerstone of our societies: What is the new supreme being in the centre of future secular societies?

We have yet to find a central point round which all will naturally meet. In this point consists the unity of Positivism as a system of life. Unless it can be thus condensed, round one single principle, it will never wholly supersede the synthesis of Theology, notwithstanding its superiority in the reality and stability of its component parts, and in their homogeneity and coherence as a whole. There should be a central point in the system towards which Feeling, Reason, and Activity alike converge. The proof that Positivism possesses such a central point will remove the last obstacles to its complete acceptance, as the guide of private or of public life.

Such a centre we find in the great conception of Humanity, towards which every aspect of Positivism naturally converges. By it the conception of God will be entirely superseded, and a synthesis be formed, more complete and permanent than that provisionally established by the old religions. Through it the new doctrine becomes at once accessible to men’s hearts in its full extent and application. From their heart it will penetrate their minds, and thus the immediate necessity of beginning with a long and difficult course of study is avoided, though this must of course be always indispensable to its systematic teachers.

This central point of Positivism is even more moral than intellectual in character: it represents the principle of Love upon which the whole system rests. It is the peculiar characteristic of the Great Being who is here set forth, to be compounded of separable elements. Its existence depends therefore entirely upon mutual Love knitting together its various parts. The calculations of self-interest can never be substituted as a combining influence for the sympathetic instincts.

it requires high powers of generalization to conceive clearly of this vast organism

Yet the belief in Humanity, while stimulating Sympathy, at the same time enlarges the scope and vigour of the Intellect. For it requires high powers of generalization to conceive clearly of this vast organism, as the result of spontaneous co-operation, abstraction made of all partial antagonisms. Reason, then, has its part in this central dogma as well as Love. It enlarges and completes our conception of the Supreme Being, by revealing to us the external and internal conditions of its existence.

Lastly, our active powers are stimulated by it no less than our feelings and our reason. For since Humanity is so far more complex than any other organism, it will react more strongly and more continuously on its environment, submitting to its influence and so modifying it. Hence results Progress which is simply the development of Order, under the influence of Love.

Thus, in the conception of Humanity, the three essential aspects of Positivism, its subjective principle, its objective dogma, and its practical object, are united. Towards Humanity, who is for us the only true Great Being, we, the conscious elements of whom she is composed, shall henceforth direct every aspect of our life, individual or collective. Our thoughts will be devoted to the knowledge of Humanity, our affections to her love, our actions to her service.

Positivists then may, more truly than theological believers of whatever creed, regard life as a continuous and earnest act of worship; worship which will elevate and purify our feelings, enlarge and enlighten our thoughts, ennoble and invigorate our actions. It supplies a direct solution, so far as a solution is possible, of the great problem of the Middle Ages, the subordination of Politics to Morals. For this follows at once from the consecration now given to the principle that social sympathy should preponderate over self-love.

Thus Positivism becomes, in the true sense of the word, a Religion; the only religion which is real and complete; destined therefore to replace all imperfect and provisional systems resting on the primitive basis of theology.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.363-365.
Apoteose a Júlio de Castilhos by Marciano Schmitz (posession of Eliseu Padilha)
Apoteose a Júlio de Castilhos by Marciano Schmitz (posession of Eliseu Padilha)

The replacement of God with Humanity has implications in the arts and in the sciences. God was absolute, but transcendent, not be be reached with empirical research. Humanity is entirely relative, something we will experience differently wherever we realise that we are part of it, a mere fragmented concept, if we dare the radical thought. It is on the other hand most real. We experience it as a life-saver, it is physical in all its institutions. It has a past, a present, and a future. It is developing and vulnerable. All the sciences are subservient to this entity.

What we get here is a social, a historical, and a self-reflexive turn: The sciences explore humanity — and are themselves perhaps the most interesting historical achievement mankind has brought forth. We will experience ourselves as independent as observers, but the concepts we entertain, the languages we speak where we discuss the history of mankind, are social, are the product of the very entity we are exploring.

The concept of humanity had to grow in a constant widening of our historical an social awareness. Monotheism and nationalism gave rise to more powerful concepts of collectives before the sciences arrived at the modern concept of humanity and its longer history. This is the field of Comte’s “three stage model” of the intellectual and social developments of mankind with its identification of different mental settings from fetishism over monotheism to scientific understanding. All modern sciences are inevitably concerned with humanity. Some explore the “statical” aspects that create our living conditions (like mathematics, physics, or biology), others the “dynamical” aspects (of mankind and its historical and social developments), so the differentiation that eventually paved the way towards our present differentiation between natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities:

With such a mission, Science acquires a position of unparalleled importance, as the sole means through which we come to know the nature and conditions of this Great Being, the worship of whom should be the distinctive feature of our whole life. For this all-important knowledge, the study of Sociology would seem to suffice: but Sociology itself depends upon preliminary study, first of the outer world, in which the actions of Humanity take place; and secondly, of Man, the individual agent.

The object of Positivist worship is not like that of theological believers an absolute, isolated, incomprehensible Being, whose existence admits of no demonstration, or comparison with anything real. The evidence of the Being here set forward is spontaneous, and is shrouded in no mystery. Before we can praise, love, and serve Humanity as we ought, we must know something of the laws which govern her existence, an existence more complicated than any other of which we are cognizant.

Statical Aspects of Humanity

And by virtue of this complexity, Humanity possesses the attributes of vitality in a higher degree than any other organization; that is to say, there is at once more intimate harmony of the component elements, and more complete subordination to the external world. Immense as is the magnitude of this organism measured both in Time and Space, yet each of its parts carefully examined will show the general consensus of the whole. At the same time it is more dependent than any other upon the conditions of the outer world; in other words, upon the sum of the laws that regulate inferior phenomena. Like other vital organisms, it submits to mathematical, astronomical, physical, chemical, and biological conditions; and, in addition to these, is subject to special laws of Sociology with which lower organisms are not concerned. But as a further result of its higher complexity it reacts upon the world more powerfully; and is indeed in a true sense its chief. Scientifically defined, then, it is truly the Supreme Being: the Being who manifests to the fullest extent all the highest attributes of life.

But there is yet another feature peculiar to Humanity, and one of primary importance. That feature is, that the elements of which she is composed must always have an independent existence. In other organisms the parts have no existence when severed from the whole; but this, the greatest of all organisms, is made up of lives which can really be separated. There is, as we have seen, harmony of parts as well as independence, but the last of these conditions is as indispensable as the first. Humanity would cease to be superior to other beings were it possible for her elements to become inseparable. The two conditions are equally necessary: but the difficulty of reconciling them is so great as to account at once for the slowness with which this highest of all organisms has been developed. It must not, however, be supposed that the new Supreme Being is, like the old, merely a subjective result of our powers of abstraction. Its existence is revealed to us, on the contrary, by close investigation of objective fact. Man indeed, as an individual, cannot properly be said to exist, except in the exaggerated abstractions of modern metaphysicians. Existence in the true sense can only be predicated of Humanity; although the complexity of her nature prevented men from forming a systematic conception of it, until the necessary stages of scientific initiation had been passed. Bearing this conclusion in mind, we shall be able now to distinguish in Humanity two distinct orders of functions: those by which she acts upon the world, and those which bind together her component parts. Humanity cannot herself act otherwise than by her separable members; but the efficiency of these members depends upon their working in co-operation, whether instinctively or with design. We find, then, external functions relating principally to the material existence of this organism; and internal functions by which its movable elements are combined. This distinction is but an application of the great theory, due to Bichat’s genius, of the distinction between the life of nutrition and the life of relation which we find in the individual organism. Philosophically it is the source from which we derive the great social principle of separation of spiritual from temporal power. The temporal power governs: it originates in the personal instincts, and it stimulates activity. On it depends social Order. The spiritual power can only moderate: it is the exponent of our social instincts, and it promotes co-operation, which is the guarantee of Progress. Of these functions of Humanity the first corresponds to the function of nutrition, the second to that of innervation in the individual organism.

Dynamical aspects
The Great Being whom we worship is not immutable any more than it is absolute. Its nature is relative.

Having now viewed our subject statically, we may come to its dynamical aspect; reserving more detailed discussion for the third volume of this treatise, which deals with my fundamental theory of human development. The Great Being whom we worship is not immutable any more than it is absolute. Its nature is relative; and, as such, is eminently capable of growth. In a word it is the most vital of all living beings known to us. It extends and becomes more complex by the continuous successions of generations. But in its progressive changes as well as in its permanent functions, it is subject to invariable laws. And these laws considered, as we may now consider them, as a whole, form a more sublime object of contemplation than the solemn inaction of the old Supreme Being, whose existence was passive except when interrupted by acts of arbitrary and unintelligible volition. Thus it is only by Positive science that we can appreciate this highest of all destinies to which all the fatalities of individual life are subordinate. It is with this as with subjects of minor importance: systematic study of the Past is necessary in order to determine the Future, and so explain the tendencies of the Present. Let us then pass from the conception of Humanity as fully developed, to the history of its rise and progress; a history in which all other modes of progress are included. In ancient times the conception was incompatible with the theological spirit and also with the military character of society, which involved the slavery of the productive classes. The feeling of Patriotism, restricted as it was at first, was the only prelude then possible to the recognition of Humanity. From this narrow nationality there arose in the Middle Ages the feeling of universal brotherhood, as soon as military life had entered on its defensive phase, and all supernatural creeds had spontaneously merged into a monotheistic form common to the whole West. The growth of Chivalry, and the attempt made to effect a permanent separation of the two social powers, announced already the subordination of Politics to Morals, and thus showed that the conception of Humanity was in direct course of preparation. But the unreal and anti-social nature of the mediaeval creed, and the military and aristocratic character of feudal society, made it impossible to go very far in this direction. The abolition of personal slavery was the most essential result of this important period. Society could now assume its industrial character; and feelings of fraternity were encouraged by modes of life in which all classes alike participated. Meanwhile, the growth of the Positive spirit was proceeding, and preparing the way for the establishment of Social Science, by which alone all other Positive studies should be systematized. This being done, the conception of the Great Being became possible. It was with reference to subjects of a speculative and scientific nature that the conception first arose in a distinct shape. As early as two centuries ago, Pascal spoke of the human race as one Man. [The whole succession of men during the course of so many centuries should be considered as one Man ever living and constantly learning.] Amidst the inevitable decline of the theological and military system, men became conscious of the movement of society, which had now advanced through so many phases; and the notion of Progress as a distinctive feature of Humanity became admitted. Still the conception of Humanity as the basis for a new synthesis was impossible until the crisis of the French Revolution. That crisis on the one hand proved the urgent necessity for social regeneration, and on the other gave birth to the only philosophy capable of effecting it. Thus our consciousness of the new Great Being has advanced co-extensively with its growth. Our present conception of it is as much the measure of our social progress as it is the summary of Positive knowledge.

Inorganic and organic sciences elevated by their connexion with the supreme science of Humanity
True, the religion of Humanity will lead to the entire abolition of scientific Academies…

In speaking of the dignity of Science when regenerated by this lofty application of it, I do not refer solely to the special science of Social phenomena, but also to the preliminary studies of Life and of the Inorganic World, both of which form an essential portion of Positive doctrine. A social mission of high importance will be recognized in the most elementary sciences, whether it be for the sake of their method or for the value of their scientific results. True, the religion of Humanity will lead to the entire abolition of scientific Academies, because their tendency, especially in France, is equally hurtful to science and morality. They encourage mathematicians to confine their attention exclusively to the first step in the scientific scale; and biologists to pursue their studies without any solid basis or definite purpose. Special studies carried on without regard for the encyclopaedic principles which determine the relative value of knowledge, and its bearing on human life, will be condemned by all men of right feeling and good sense. Such men will feel the necessity of resisting the morbid narrowness of mind and heart to which the anarchy of our times inevitably leads. But the abolition of the Academic system will only ensure a larger measure of respect for all scientific researches of real value, on whatever subject. The study of Mathematics, the value of which is at present negatived by its hardening tendency, will now manifest its latent moral efficacy, as the only sure basis for firm conviction; a state of mind that can never be perfectly attained in more complex subjects of thought, except by those who have experienced it in the simpler subjects. When the close connexion of all scientific knowledge becomes more generally admitted, Humanity will reject political teachers who are ignorant of Geometry, as well as geometricians who neglect Sociology. Biology meanwhile will lose its dangerous materialism, and will receive all the respect due to its close connexion with social science and its important bearing on the essential doctrines of Positivism. To attempt to explain the life of Humanity without first examining the lower forms of life, would be as serious an error as to study Biology without regard to the social purpose which Biology is intended to serve. Science has now become indispensable to the establishment of moral truth, and at the same time its subordination to the inspirations of the heart is fully recognized; thus it takes its place henceforward among the most essential functions of the priesthood of Humanity. The supremacy of true Feeling will strengthen Reason, and will receive in turn from Reason a systematic sanction. Natural philosophy, besides its evident value in regulating the spontaneous action of Humanity, has a direct tendency to elevate human nature; it draws from the outer world that basis of fixed truth which is so necessary to control our various desires.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.368-374.

When it comes to serving humanity, the arts will become even more important. They can claim to reach the individual. They inspire mankind with ideas and ideals. Poets, sculptors and painters generate the sensations, the social glue of awareness of humanity. They fill their audiences with admiration for the achievements of humanity, with an awareness of its vulnerability, with feelings of responsibility.

Our aesthetics begin to change with the new object of exploration and admiration. Poets, sculptors, and painters of the 19th century began to draw on the knowledge of historians, sociologists and scientists — a notion of immense inspiration among “realist” and “naturalist” writers like Émile Zola or George Eliot who understood themselves as “positivists”, as both, artists and as practical scientists in their fields of social and political observation.

Science unassisted cannot define the nature and destinies of this Great Being with sufficient clearness. In our religion the object of worship must be conceived distinctly, in order to be ardently loved and zealously served. Science, especially in subjects of this nature, is confined within narrow limits; it leaves inevitable deficiencies which esthetic genius must supply. And there are certain qualities in Art as opposed to Science, which specially qualify it for the representation of Humanity. For Humanity is distinguished from other forms of life by the combination of independence with co-operation, attributes which also are natural to Poetry. For while Poetry is more sympathetic than Science, its productions have far more individuality; the genius of their author is more strongly marked in them, and the debt to his predecessors and contemporaries is less apparent. Thus the synthesis on which the inauguration of the final religion depends, is one in which Art will participate more than Science, Science furnishing merely the necessary basis. Its influence will be even greater than in the times of Polytheism; for powerful as Art appeared to be in those times, it could in reality do nothing but embellish the fables to which the confused ideas of theocracy had given rise. By its aid we shall for the first time rise at last to a really human point of view, and be enabled distinctly to understand the essential attributes of the Great Being of whom we are members. The material power of Humanity and the successive phases of her physical, her intellectual, and, above all, her moral progress, will each in turn be depicted. Without the difficulties of analytical study, we shall gain a clear knowledge of her nature and her conditions, by the poet’s description of her future destiny, of her constant struggle against painful fatalities, which have at last become a source of happiness and greatness, of the slow growth of her infancy, of her lofty hopes now so near fulfilment. The history of universal Love, the soul by which this Great Being is animated; the history, that is, of the marvellous advance of man, individually or socially, from brutish appetite to pure unselfish sympathy, is of itself an endless theme for the poetry of the future.

The supremacy of Humanity is but the result of individual co-operation; her power is not supreme, it is only superior to that of all beings whom we know.

Comparisons, too, may be instituted, in which the poet, without specially attacking the old religion, will indicate the superiority of the new. The attributes of the new Great Being may be forcibly illustrated, especially during the time of transition, by contrast with the inferiority of her various predecessors. All theological types are absolute, indefinite, and immutable; consequently in none of them has it been possible to combine to a satisfactory extent the attributes of goodness, wisdom, and power. Nor can we conceive of their combination, except in a Being whose existence is a matter of certainty, and who is subject to invariable laws. The gods of Polytheism were endowed with energy and sympathy, but possessed neither dignity nor morality. They were superseded by the sublime deity of Monotheism, who was sometimes represented as inert and passionless, sometimes as impenetrable and inflexible. But the new Supreme Being, having a real existence, an existence relative and modifiable, admits of being more distinctly conceived than the old; and the influence of the conception will be equally strong and far more elevating. Each one of us will recognize in it a power superior to his own, a power on which the whole destiny of his life depends, since the life of the individual is in every respect subordinate to the evolution of the race. But the knowledge of this power has not the crushing effect of the old conception of omnipotence. For every great or good man will feel that his own life is an indispensable element in the great organism. The supremacy of Humanity is but the result of individual co-operation; her power is not supreme, it is only superior to that of all beings whom we know. Our love for her is tainted by no degrading fears, yet it is always coupled with the most sincere reverence. Perfection is in no wise claimed for her; we study her natural defects with care in order to remedy them as far as possible. The love we bear to her is a feeling as noble as it is strong; it calls for no degrading expressions of adulation, but it inspires us with unremitting zeal for moral improvement. But these and other advantages of the new religion, though they can be indicated by the philosopher, need the poet to display them in their full light. The moral grandeur of man when freed from the chimeras that oppress him, was foreseen by Goethe, and still more clearly by Byron. But the work of these men was one of destruction; and their types could only embody the spirit of revolt. Poetry must rise above the negative stage in which, owing to the circumstances of the time, their genius was arrested, and must embrace in the Positive spirit the system of sociological and other laws to which human development is subject, before it can adequately portray the new Man in his relation to the new God.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.376-378.

The Sanctity of Woman

Eduardo de Sa, L'Humanité, avec l'Avenir dans ses bras (1900), Chapelle de l'Humanité. Paris
Eduardo de Sa, L’Humanité, avec l’Avenir dans ses bras (1900), Chapelle de l’Humanité. Paris

The Religion of Humanity transported Positivism from a philosophy with a new epistemological approach into the world of political entities. Positivism would spread as a system; it would lead towards a European confederation of Positivist nations and from there into a new era of globalisation under the banner of Positivism. To become fully functional on the political stage it needed a flag – a religious banner for all the ceremonies in Positivist temples, a political flag, and an idea of how the international flag would incorporate individual national flags where nations entered the greater coalition. Comte needed a design with the open and soft power of integration. The communists had chosen red, the colour of the revolution they were aiming at. Comte opted for a new language natural growth and its new worldly version of the sublime. It was clear under these premises what design he had to choose:

The want of such a symbol is already instinctively felt. What is wanted is a substitute for the old retrograde symbols, which yet shall avoid all subversive tendencies. It would be a suitable inauguration of the period of transition which we are now entering, if the colours and mottoes appropriate to the final state were adopted at its outset.

…a woman of thirty years of age, bearing her son in her arms.

To speak first of the banner to be used in religious services. It should be painted on canvas. On one side the ground would be white; on it would be the symbol of Humanity, personified by a woman of thirty years of age, bearing her son in her arms. The other side would bear the religious formula of Positivists: Love is our Principle, Order is our Basis, Progress our End, upon a ground of green, the colour of hope, and therefore most suitable for emblems of the future.

Green, too, would be the colour of the political flag, common to the whole West. As it is intended to float freely, it does not admit of painting; but the carved image of Humanity might be placed at the banner-pole. The principal motto of Positivism will, in this case, be divided into two, both alike significant. One side of the flag will have the political and scientific motto, Order and Progress: the other, the moral and esthetic motto, Live for Others. The first will be preferred by men; the other is more especially adapted to women, who are thus invited to participate in these public manifestations of social feeling.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.431.

The Religion of Humanity focused on women – not under the agenda of militant feminists but in a celebration of the care and tender wife and spiritual warmth of maternal love. The General View of Positivism had a chapter on “The Influence of Positivism upon Women” – here just the summaries of the argument:

Women represent the affective element in our nature, as philosophers and people represent the intellectual and practical elements — Women have stood aloof from the modern movement, because of its anti-historic and destructive character — But they will sympathize with constructive tendencies; and will distinguish sound philosophy from scientific specialities — Women’s position in society. Like philosophers and people, their part is not to govern, but to modify — The united action of philosophers, women, and proletaries constitutes Moral Force — Superiority of the new spiritual power to the old. Selfregarding tendencies of Catholic doctrine — The spirit of Positivism, on the contrary, is essentially social. The Heart and the Intellect mutually strengthen each other — Intellectual and moral affinities of women with Positivism — Catholicism purified love, but did not directly strengthen it — Women’s influence over the working classes and their teachers — Their social influence in the salon — But the Family is their principal sphere of action — Woman’s mission as a wife. Conjugal love an education for universal sympathy — Conditions of marriage. Indissoluble monogamy — Perpetual widowhood — Woman’s mission as a mother — Education of children belongs to mothers. They only can guide the development of character — Modern sophisms about Woman’s rights. The domesticity of her life follows from the principle of Separation of Powers — The position of the sexes tends to differentiation rather than identity — Woman to be maintained by Man — The education of women should be identical with that of men — Women’s privileges. Their mission is in itself a privilege — They will receive honour and worship from men — Development of mediaeval chivalry — The practice of Prayer, so far from disappearing, is purified and strengthened in Positive religion — The worship of Woman a preparation for the worship of Humanity — Exceptional women. Joan of Arc — It is for women to introduce Positivism into the Southern nations.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p. xviii.

Women would play the key role in the mental and spiritual education. Comte again in his A General View of Positivism

Women, from their strongly sympathetic nature, are the original source of all moral influence; and they are peculiarly qualified by the passive character of their life to assist the action of the spiritual power in the family. In its essential function of education, their co-operation is of the highest importance. The education of young children is entrusted to their sole charge; and the education of more advanced years simply consists in giving a more systematic shape to what the mother has already inculcated in childhood. As a wife, too, Woman assumes still more distinctly the spiritual function of counsel; she softens by persuasion where the philosopher can only influence by conviction. In social meetings, again, the only mode of public life in which women can participate, they assist the spiritual power in the formation of Public Opinion, of which it is the systematic organ, by applying the principles which it inculcates to the case of particular actions or persons. In all these matters their influence will be far more effectual, when men have done their duty to women by setting them free from the necessity of gaining their own livelihood; and when women on their side have renounced both power and wealth, as we see so often exemplified among the working classes.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p. 360.

Comte’s The Catechism of Positive Religion is, consequently, no longer structured as a conversation between a child and its spiritual father but as the conversation between the new Positivist priest and the woman striving for a better understanding of the final religion.

Healing our Societies: The Positivist Clergy

Auguste Comte had not too much confidence in political representation or the press. He was ready to rather invest into a new Church that would pervade the modern educational systems and steer all public debates with its purely spiritual authority. He gives numbers of the size of this organisation in order to give a rough idea of the importance he places on the new class:

Whilst it is the active class that must be most affected by the systematisation of the regime, whilst it depends for its attainment principally upon women, to inaugurate it and uphold it belongs exclusively to the spiritual power. It is on this ground that, before proceeding farther, I must here explain in detail the constitution of the Positive priesthood, and even state its fundamental function in reference to the common education. These two points determined, we then form a direct estimate of the definitive systematisation of human life, in relation successively to the Individual, the Family, and the State.

So intimate is the correlation between the constitution of the priesthood and the system of education, that any clear definition of the former is not possible, so long as the latter remains undetermined. But in the ‘Greneral View’ the education has already been explained, so that I may here proceed to examine the former question in which are necessarily implicated all parts of the regime,

Two preliminary cautions one as to the numbers given, the second as to the assumption made.

First, however, there are two cautions to be given, applicable equally to the other sections of this chapter and even to the next. The first relates to the numbers which I have thought it right to introduce in order to give precision to our conceptions, though any exact determination is as yet unattainable. When the necessary data are obtained, it will be easy, on the principles here stated, to effect the requisite corrections in my primary estimates. In the second place, in my exposition of the life, just as in those of the doctrine and of the worship, I have to keep in view the Positive state in its normal plenitude; I assume it, that is, established throughout the world. It belongs to the next chapter, the determination of the general course of its advent to full power; the question is as much out of place here as it would have been in social statics. For clearness’ sake, however, my detailed statements will bear exclusively on the West, in the full sense of the term, including therein its colonial settlements; this gives a total population of one hundred and forty millions, and to this population the regeneration will at first be confined. We must multiply the numbers given by seven, when we take the whole race into account (its amount at present is quintuple), allowing for the normal increase of the nations which at present are below the western rate (sixty inhabitants to the square kilometre).

Constitution of the Priesthood. Its numbers limited.

In Order to consolidate the separation of the two powers, the general basis of the Positive regime, it is essential to limit the numbers of the contemplative class as far as is consistent with its full functions. Without this reduction, it would be impossible to secure the rare combination of intellectual and moral qualities, required for the priesthood of Humanity, the extent of which must be determined with especial reference to the encyclopaedic instruction which completes and systematises Positive education. I have already stated that this instruction will occupy seven years, during which each pupil remains throughout under the same teacher, teaching, be it added, both sexes, though in separate classes.

Requirements of each Positivist School.

Each Positive school, then, will require seven priests, and in addition three vicars, in order that the philosophical presbytery each may suffice for the demands of the worship; of preaching; and of consultation, on moral, intellectual, or even physical questions. The scheme already referred to binds each professor, as a rule, to two lectures only in each week during ten months of the Positivist year, besides a month of examination. Every school is annexed to the temple of the district, as is the presbytery, the residence of the ten members of the sacerdotal college and of their families, with the senior member for president, and with a separation of residence for the vicars from the priests.

Twenty thousand required for the West. The temples one for ten thousand families.

On these data, it seems to me that the spiritual wants of the West may be duly met by a corporation of twenty thousand philosophers, of whom France would have the fourth. This rate is equivalent to having a temple for every ten thousand families, each family consisting of seven members, in agreement with a law to be explained later. Positive religion by it’s nature admits of this great reduction of the contemplative class, though its duties are more extensive than those of the analogous class under any Theologism. Always demonstrable and never ambiguous, its precepts will but seldom require explanation from the priests, remembering the universal diffusion of systematic instruction, which will often enable women and the elders to supply the place of the priest in counsel. With a view to their more entire concentration on the duties of teaching and worship, the philosophical class will be freed from all material cares, each temple being placed under the protection of the nearest banker, on whom it devolves to maintain the fabric and the priests.

Mode of recruitment of the Positivist clergy.

The Positivist clergy must be recruited from all classes, by conferring, at the age of twenty-eight, the provisional degree of the aspirant on anyone who is thought qualified for the priesthood, on a judgment of his scientific noviciate, and of the subsequent period of unfettered action. Equally unfettered is the period of training for the priestly office, under the moral and intellectual surveillance of the senior member of the nearest college; a yearly stipend of one hundred and twenty pounds being allowed, but not beyond the age of thirty-five at the farthest, that being the normal age for the vicariate. It is with this office that begin the functions and obligations of the priesthood, restricted, however, to education and purely private consultations. From the vicars are chosen at the age of forty-two the priests of Humanity, the sole possessors of the full spiritual power, under the control of the high priest. Although each priest has first been vicar, nay even aspirant, in exceptional cases the supreme head of the Positivist clergy may confer the vicariate, nay even the priesthood, on any whom he may deem to fulfil the essential conditions, without requiring the regular course. Over and above the intellectual and moral tests, marriage, at any rate in the subjective form of the institution, is binding upon all priests, that they may be under the full influence of affection; they also renounce all property by inheritance, the better to ensure the complete abandonment of all idea of temporal greatness. An official residence being provided, for their subsistence the vicar and the priest depend on a yearly stipend of two hundred and forty pounds for the vicar, four hundred and eighty for the priest, plus their expenses for visitations and journeys.

Artistic and scientific pensioner.

Not included in the priesthood, but within the limits of the contemplative class, a suitable existence must be offered to those who, by the peculiarity of their constitution, are in heart and character below the level of their intellect. These pensioners, artists or savans, without any restriction as to number, receive annually, according to each case, the stipends of the aspirant, the vicar, or the priest. Moreover, the central priesthood provides for the expenses their works involve, in order that they may freely develope the incomplete powers they have, without obtaining the consideration which is due to the spiritual power.

The High Priest of Humanity.

The whole spiritual hierarchy is immediately and unintermittingly under the influence of the High Priest of Humanity; he names, transfers, suspends, and even discards, on his sole responsibility, any of its members. Normally the residence of the pontiff must be Paris, as the metropolis of the West, but never with any share in the government of the holy city. But, in order to ensure the noble simplicity demanded by such a supremacy, his annual income is only fivefold that of the ordinary priests, exclusive of the expenses incident to the administration of the central budget.

His seven assistants.

The vastness of his office makes it necessary for the Pontiff of the West to call habitually to his aid seven national superiors, each with a salary the half of his, over and above his necessary expenses. Four are allotted, one to each province, to Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and Germany, which will always remain distinct by their history, if not in language, after the normal disgregation of the actual nationalities. The three others are reserved for the colonial settlements of the West, no assistant being named for France, to which the High-Priest, as in direct intact, can pay sufficient attention.

The number ultimately forty-nine

But the number will naturally be increased in proportion as the Positive religion advances towards its normal state of universality. This eminent branch of the priesthood will, then, furnish forty —nine members when mankind is completely regenerated. Besides their ordinary duty, on them it will devolve, on the death or retirement of the Pontiff, to influence or correct the choice he will have freely made of his successor, with regard to whom they will consult, if need be, the whole of the senior members of the colleges within their respective jurisdiction.

The dress of the Priesthood

As for the dress of the priesthood, in public or private, imitating the judicious reserve of the founders of Catholicism and Islam, I prefer to adjourn a determination which if it is to be effective, must be completely spontaneous. We may be confident, however, that, from the definiteness of Positivism as compared with any form of Theologism, the appropriate modifications in dress will be of more rapid introduction. The form of its clothing will remind people, that the priesthood, by its true position intermediate between the sexes, has more affinity with the female sex; and the colour will show that it speaks in the name of the past, in the interest of the future. Whilst disorganising costume, the anarchy of modem times has instinctively respected the distinction of the sexes, and therein lies the germ of discipline for the less strongly marked cases. The reorganisation of costume should naturally begin with the clergy, as, in its social character, more homogeneous and better defined than the patriciate or the proletariate.

Spiritual Concentration.

It is in virtue of its eminently synthetical nature that the spiritual power allows, nay, even requires the plenitude of centralisation just described. Since the priestly function is essentially one and the same for all priests, it might, as in the beginning, so for ever, be discharged by one single person, provided that he could make himself felt everywhere. The plurality of organs in the spiritualty being, if closely examined, solely to compensate the deficiency due to the vast extension of the service, they should be in such subordination to their head that their class image forth the unity entrusted to his charge. He is the priesthood, and, at need, could change all its members, leaving the spiritual organism intact. The Papacy, at all times hampered by the college of cardinals, and often liable to Councils, was never able to attain the ascendancy which will be allowed the Pontificate of Humanity, as a natural consequence of the ripeness of things for the separation of the two powers.

The dependence and ascendancy of the Priesthood.

In order to consolidate the concentration which is natural to the sociocratic clergy, the individuality of its members, whilst more strongly marked than that in the theocratic priesthood, must be limited to the requirements of personal dignity, of fair emulation, and above all of a just responsibility. Renouncing power in every shape, renouncing even wealth, the priests of Humanity are not exposed to the great causes of disagreement. Their function is to direct opinion; they therefore shun command, the better to give effect to the powers of conviction and persuasion. Devoting himself to the supreme interpreter of the Great Being, each priest feels that he shares in the most extensive power, a power before which all temporal greatness sinks into the shade, for that is the attribute of the class which bends the wills of men without regulating them. The modest income on which the priests depend for subsistence is always subject to the will of the very chiefs whom they have to discipline, and whose capricious action will often leave them no resource but the voluntary contributions of sincere believers. Nothing, however, can deprive the Positive clergy of its incomparable privilege, that of representing to the actual generation the two subjective portions of Humanity. The noble contrast the priesthood thus presents between dependence and ascendancy is most pronounced in the case of the High-Priest, for he, a simple citizen of the metropolis of man, with a salary inferior to the income of the poorest banker, yet exercises by free assent an universal influence.

No profit to be derived by the Priests from their writing labours.

With the object of completing the purifying process begun in the renunciation of all inheritance, it is essential that the priests of Humanity forego any profit to themselves derivable from their labours. All intellectual services should be public and gratuitous. It is incumbent on the contemplative class to offer the others the constant example of a wise moderation in the use of speech, writing, and above all of the press, so greatly abused during the period of anarchy. The greater part of the ideas of everyday application are to be transmitted by tradition, by practice and in silence, books being reserved for the communication of any real advance in om- abstract and general conceptions. Still, all allowance made for its habitual duties, the priesthood of Sociocracy will unavoidably write more than the clergy of the Theocracy. But the cost of printing the works thus produced is met by the pontifical treasury; their distribution being left to the authors, whose name is to be given in all cases, and who are under a solemn obligation never to sell them. The promise to this effect, exacted from the priest at his consecration, and renewed on each publication, is so essential to the dignity of the clergy, that the High-Priest will revoke the priest who shall have thrice broken it, accepting him however as a pensioner, if he has sufficient intellectual value.

Nor from their teaching.

The rule must apply further to all their teaching, be it in order to prevent the degradation of the theoretic class, be it in order to save the children of the wealthy from private instruction, which a foolish pride leads the rich to substitute for public. The public teaching ought always to suffice, allowing for the explanation which, exceptionally, each priest will give gratuitously to the pupils he shall judge worthy of special attention. Private teaching, fallen into the hands of theoricians who have failed of admission into the priesthood, even as pensioners, will be so discredited as to be no disturbance of the systematic instruction.

Teaching outside the priesthood not to be forbidden.

It is the more important to secure this result, as we have no other protection for the official teaching under a regime which will always keep spiritual discipline clear of all oppressive temporal action. Whilst the state furnishes the priesthood the means for giving instruction to the full extent to all, it must abstain from throwing difficulties in the way either of individuals or societies if they wish to enter into legitimate competition with the public schools. Persistent however as must be our respect for liberty in teaching, such liberty will exist in principle rather than in practice, unless the regular teaching become altogether degenerate, a condition of things which the spiritual head of Humanity may guard against or remedy by remodelling at need his whole clergy.

Such are the introductory observations I was bound to offer here on the special constitution of the Positive priesthood. They will be complemented in the natural course of things as I explain its regular intervention throughout the regime. But without this introduction to the whole, the several particulars could not have the requisite precision and clearness.

Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity, vol. 4 [1854] (London: Longmans, Green and co., 1877), p.221-228.

The functions of the new class are broader than any of the professional functions established thus far. the priests of Positivism will be the central authors of the new societies, they pervade the educational system, and they dissolve all functions of the medical branch.

The Priesthood will resume the medical office

Philosophical or poetical, — it is indifferent which term we use, — to complete its legitimate attributions, the Positive priesthood must absorb all the other functions, which, as they directly regard man, are in their nature indivisible. Such is pre-eminently the medical — the provisional isolation of which has gradually led to a state of mental and moral degeneration urgently calling for its reincorporation with the priestly office. A portentous venality, combined with irrational speciality, leads in medicine to a blind ignoring of the indivisibility of human nature in the individual as in society. But by virtue of its encyclopaedic training, the Positive priesthood will resume the medical office as the inseparable complement of its principal function, a function which connects it with human existence under all its aspects whatsoever. Two special precautions, however, are necessary in reference to this complement, or the dignity of the priesthood might be lowered by mere manual and cruel duties. The surgical department, reduced to its original subaltern position, must be handed over to those best qualified for it, must belong, that is, to the surgical instrument makers, when qualified by an encyclopaedic education to avail themselves of the special opportunities afforded by their profession. So again, postmortem examinations will be limited to the functionary who, in the name of Humanity, performs the terrible duty of executing murderers; their bodies will be sufficient for the real needs of science in its renovated state.

Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity, vol. 4 [1854] (London: Longmans, Green and co., 1877), p.64-66.

Hospitals and the entire organisation of the medical profession remain medieval institutions. The new priesthood will dissolve and integrate all the boundaries between professions in this field. What might appear to be a threat to the vast field of medical professionals should, however, so Comte, be rather seen as their rehabilitation. Those who have been doctors in the past will be the new priests of our societies in the future — the priests of societies that will no longer show the same symptoms of diseases once we have removed the old social disorder, so Comte in passages which John Stuart Mill would read with utter disbelief in 1865:

After all however, both from the general and the special point of view, it is the physicians who will be most benefited by the institution, as having, since we shook off the yoke of Theocracy, become, more and more, the natural precursors of the Sociocratic priesthood. The tendency of modern science to degenerate into academical pedantry shocks at once their social aspirations and their predisposition to synthesis, as it transfers to the cosmologists, and more especially to the geometricians, that leadership in science, which, as the result of the Middle Ages, normally devolved on the biologists. More fully emancipated, more progressive than any other class, the physicians, though a provisional class, alone knew how to use aright the just censure of Molière, being stimulated by it to shake off the fetters of Metaphysics and literature, with the result of becoming the best support of nascent Positivism. Though I have always spoken freely of the materialism and the venality of the profession, I always found there valuable sympathies with the Positive teaching, as a doctrine which raises its social importance and its scientific independence by incorporating its function into those of the priesthood of Humanity. In this historical judgment, it is not solely nor even chiefly the pure biologists that I have in view; they are already too deteriorated by the academical indiscipline to be qualified for hearty cooperation in the work of mental and moral reorganisation. I have more confidence in the higher order of practitioners, whose apparent contempt of medical theories is but the expression of their instinctive sense of the futility of partial syntheses. At bottom, they are the most predisposed of all to promote the regeneration of their profession, one in which the higher minds have constantly to strive against imminent degradation.

Measures for the regeneration of the medical profession.
Hospitals are an institution exclusively adapted to the Middle Ages

Such considerations as these led me, when planning the transitional institution of Positive schools, to treat them as especially meant for the medical profession in the ordinary sense of the term. Such schools may act directly on the doctors, on whom the government confers a legal status by entrusting them with a sanitary office, such trust justifying it in exacting certain intellectual and moral conditions. The intellectual guarantee will be a consequence of their encyclopaedic training, the type of which is given in the Positive school; to satisfy the moral will consist in their formally renouncing all private practice, in order to devote themselves properly to the service of the public, such service of course to be suitably remunerated. Three grades in succession, determined, as in other cases, by competition, seniority, and choice, will receive annual salaries of three thousand, six thousand, and twelve thousand francs, the same scale as the priesthood. To encourage hierarchical subordination in a class which, in its own nature, is averse to discipline, each functionary will superintend the practice, whether it be the treatment of persons or the service of public health, of the two physicians beneath him in rank who shall be specially attached to him. Hospitals are an institution exclusively adapted to the Middle Ages and destined to disappear utterly, in proportion as the increase of material comfort, coinciding with increased selfrespect in the working classes, shall allow us to substitute for a degrading assistance the careful attention of the family. But the change must be gradual, and it is desirable to further it by establishing on a large scale, during the whole course of the transitional period, public physicians with the duty of directing gratuitously the medical treatment of patients at their own homes.

Degrees abolished, and all medical corporations, nursing institutions included.

To complete the regeneration of the medical profession we must rid it of a mischievous monopoly, and of alien assistants. The legal privilege conferred by the doctor’s degree really only benefits the charlatan from whom it apparently protects the public, whereas there is no real protection for it against the practical consequences of our intellectual anarchy, aggravated as it is by ignorance and credulity. This legal sanction is the main support of an useless course of instruction, which would ere this have fallen into discredit, were it not for this power of conferring a monopoly of medical advice. At issue alike with the dignity of the priesthood and with spiritual freedom, the rule is a clog at once on the affectionate care of women and the generosity of the patrician class. But whilst we put an end to this oppressive influence at headquarters, we must not respect it in the subalterns, with whom its evils are often increased by superstition and hypocrisy. Involved in the general suppression of the ecclesiastical budget, the corporations, above all those of women, on which the reactionary movement conferred the monopoly of nursing, will thus lose, without hope of recovery, a privilege of which all physicians feel the inconveniences, both in public and private life. If anyone wishes to devote himself to the service of the sick, for a time or for a permanence, he should be able to do so freely, without joining or being dependent on any brotherhood or sisterhood, where pride and vanity are fostered under the cloke of a selfdevotion more apparent than real.

Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity, vol. 4 [1854] (London: Longmans, Green and co., 1877), p.371-373.

Private Positivism: Prayer, three Guardian Angels, and nine Sacraments

Nicolle Trunfio on the public cover of ELLE Australia's June 2015 issue
Nicolle Trunfio on the public cover of ELLE Australia, June 2015

The following passages from Comte’s The Catechism of Positive Religion, [1852] give the detailed regulations for private devotion in Positivist societies all around the world. They include the instructions for prayer under the guidance of the three Guardian Angels every positivist should choose, and they explain the nine sacraments that shall be taken at the different steps through life:

The Woman. — It seems to me, my father, that private worship must fall into two parts, as private life does, and those parts quite distinct — the one personal, the other domestic. To keep them separate seems necessary for our explanation.

The Priest. — Your division is the natural one. I was bound not to mix it up with my main division of the worship; but it gives us, my daughter, the plan of our present conversation. In it we shall deal with two great institutions of sociolatry. The one relates to the true guardian angels, the other to the nine social sacraments. They will constitute the respective characteristics, first of our personal, next of our domestic worship. The reasons for making the latter subordinate to the former are, though in a less degree, essentially similar to those which represent the whole of private worship as the only solid basis of public. More our own than any other, our personal worship alone can develope in us the habits which can test our adoration whether it be sincere or not. Without these habits, our domestic ceremonies, and still more our public solemnities, could have no moral efficacy. Thus sociolatry forms for each one a natural progressive series. Individual prayers are the right preparation for the celebration of our social rites, by the regular intermedium of the consecrations that concern us as members of a Family.

The Woman. — Since our personal worship is thus made the primary basis of all our religious practices, I beg you, my father, to explain to me directly its real nature.

The Priest. — It consists, my daughter, in the daily adoration of the best types which we can find to personify Humanity, taking into account the whole of our private relations.

The existence of the Supreme Being is founded entirely on love, for love alone unites in a voluntary union its separable elements. Consequently the affective sex is naturally the most perfect representative of Humanity, and at the same time her principal minister. Never will art be able worthily to embody Humanity except in the form of Woman.

But the moral providence of our Divinity is not exercised solely by the action of your sex collectively upon mine. This its fundamental office is a consequent of the personal influence that every true woman constantly exerts in the bosom of her own family. The domestic sanctuary is the continual source of the holy impulse which can alone preserve us from the moral corruption to which we are exposed in active or speculative life. The collective action of woman upon man must have its root in private life, or it will be found to have no permanent effect. It is within the family also that we gain the means of rightly appreciating the affective sex; for no one can know more of that sex than what he gains from the types of it with which he is brought into daily contact.

You see then how, in the normal state, each man finds in his family circle real guardian angels, at once the ministers and representatives of Humanity. The secret adoration of them strengthens and developes their continuous influence. It thus tends directly to make us better and happier, by ensuring the gradual predominance of altruism over egoism; by affording free scope to the former, by controlling the latter. Our just gratitude for benefits already received, thus becomes the natural source of fresh progress. The happy ambiguity of the French word, patron, marks sufficiently this twofold efficacity of our personal worship. For in it each angel must be equally invoked as a protector and as a model.

The Woman. — This first general view leaves me, my father, quite undecided as to what the personal type is to be. It would seem that we might, with equal reason, choose any one of the leading relations of domestic life.

The Priest. — We must really, my daughter, duly combine three of them, if we wish the worship of angels to have its full effect. We find in the theory of Positivism an indication of the necessity of this plurality. For we there find that the sympathetic instincts are three in number, and each of the three finds a special female influence to correspond with it. The mother, the wife, the daughter, must in our worship, as in the existence of which that worship is the ideal expression, develope in us, respectively — the mother, veneration; the wife, attachment; the daughter, kindness. As for the sister, the influence she exercises has hardly a very distinct character, and she may, in succession, be connected with each of the three essential types. The three together represent to us the three natural modes of human continuity — the past, the present, the future — as also the three degrees of solidarity which bind us to our superiors, our equals, and our inferiors. But the spontaneous harmony of the three can only be fully maintained by observing their natural subordination. So the maternal angel must habitually take the first place, yet so that her gentle presidency never impair the force of the other two.

This personal worship, as a general rule, has for its object to guide the maturity of each worshipper. At that time one of the three feminine types has most frequently become subjective, whilst another remains objective. The two influences, subjective and objective, are normally mixed, and our homage is more efficacious for the mixture; for it secures a better combination of strength and clearness of imagery with consistency and purity of feeling.

The Woman. — Your explanation seems to me very satisfactory, yet I feel, my father, that it leaves a great want as to my own sex. Our moral wants appear neglected. True, tenderness is our special distinction; yet we can hardly therefore be above the need of some such habitual cultivation of tenderness as the institution of guardian angels implies.

The Priest. — You have, my daughter, an easy solution of your difficulty in the plurality of our angelic types. This is the proper way of meeting it, otherwise it would be impossible to overcome it. In fact, the principal angel alone must be common to both sexes. Each sex must borrow from the other the two angels that complete the institution. For the mother has, for both sexes equally, a preponderance, not merely as the main source even of our physical existence, but still more as normally presiding over the whole of our education. The mother, then, is the object of adoration to both sexes. To her your sex must add the worship of the husband and the son, on the same grounds as I have assigned above for the man’s worship of the wife and daughter. We need not go further; the difference is enough to meet the wants of both sexes. They require a patronage, in the case of woman specially adapted to develope energy; in the case of man, tenderness.

The Woman. — I feel already the strong attraction of this great institution. But I find still in it, my father, two general imperfections. First, why does not it ‘ use all our private relations? next, is there sufficient allowance made for the too frequent inadequacy of the types in actual life?

The Priest. — These two difficulties disappear, my daughter, if you take into account the several subordinate types which have a natural connexion with each of our chief types, from their exciting similar feelings and standing in a similar relation to us. Around the mother we group naturally, first the father^ and sometimes the sister, then the master and protector, over and above any similar relations which may be largely increased in number both within the family and without. Extend the same method to the other two types, and we form a series of objects of adoration, becoming constantly less personal and more general. The result is, a gradual transition, so gradual as to be almost insensible, from private to public worship. This, the normal development, enables us also to supply, as far as possible, any exceptional deficiencies, by substituting, in case of need, in the room of one of the primary types its most prominent subordinate. So we are enabled, subjectively, to re-create the family when it is formed of bad elements.

The Woman. — These remarks complete the subject. It remains for me, my father, to ask you for some more precise explanations as to the general system of prayers adapted to this fundamental worship.

Each man should begin his day by a due invocation of his angels.

The Priest. — It requires, my daughter, three daily prayers — on getting up, before going to sleep, and in the midst of our daily occupations whatever they be. The first prayer must be longer and more efficacious than the other two. Each man should begin his day by a due invocation of his angels. This alone can dispose us to the right use habitually of all our powers. In the last prayer, we express the gratitude we owe to them for their protection during the day, and we hope thus to secure its continuance during our sleep. The mid-day prayer must, for a time, disengage us from the various impulses of thought and action, and must carry into both that influence of affection from which they have a tendency to alienate us.

The object of these prayers of itself points out their respective times and mode of performance. The first precedes the work of the day; it takes —place at the domestic altar, arranged so as to revive our best memories, and the attitude is kneeling, the proper attitude of veneration. The last prayer will be said when in bed, and ought, as far as possible, to continue till we fall asleep, in order the better to ensure a calm brain, at the time when we are least protected from evil tendencies. The period for our mid-day prayer cannot be so accurately stated. It must vary with individual convenience. It is, however, important that each one should, in his own way, fix it strictly. If he does so, he will find it easier to ensure the frame of mind it requires.

The respective length of our three daily prayers is also pointed out by their peculiar object. The morning prayer should be, in general, twice as long as the evening. That at mid-day should be half as long. When our personal worship is completely organized, the chief prayer naturally occupies the first hour of each day. This length is required, because we divide its opening part into two, each as long as the conclusion. We begin with the proper commemoration of the day; then comes that which is appointed for the week. The result is, that we usually divide the morning prayer into three parts of equal length, and in the three we give precedence respectively, first to images, then to signs, and last to feelings. The two other prayers do not admit of the same proportion between commemoration and effusion. In the morning, effusion in all lasts only half as long as commemoration. You invert this proportion in the evening, and you equalize the two at mid-day. You will find no difficulty in these minor differences. But I would call your attention to the fact that the total length of our daily worship only reaches two hours, even in the case of those who find it useful during the night to repeat the prayer appropriate for mid-day.

Auguste Comte and his three Guardian Angels Rosalie Boyer (his mother), Clotilde de Vaux (his love) et Sophie Bliaux (his adopted daughter).
Auguste Comte and his three Guardian Angels Rosalie Boyer (his mother), Clotilde de Vaux (his love) et Sophie Bliaux (his adopted daughter).

Every Positivist then will devote to his daily personal improvement less time than is now ab-sorbed by reading books of no value, or by useless or even pernicious amusements. In prayer alone can any decided progress of our subjective life take place, for in prayer we identify ourselves more and more with the Being we adore. The image of that Being is gradually purified and becomes more clear and vivid as we enter on each new year of our worship. By these private practices we prepare ourselves to feel aright the awakening of our sympathies due to the publicity of our other sacred rites. The moral qualities formed by such habits will, I hope, when combined, enable the rules of sociolatry to overcome, in the best of both sexes, the present coarseness of manners. Men of ordinary and uncultivated mind still regard as lost, whatever time is not occupied by work in the common sense. Where there is cultivation, there we find a recognition of the inherent value of pure intellectual exertion. But since the close of the Middle Ages, there has been a general forgetfulness of the direct higher value of moral cultivation properly so called. We should be half inclined to blush were we to devote to this moral cultivation as much time as the great Alfred allotted it daily, without in any way impairing his admirable activity.

To complete this special theory of our daily prayers, I must point out to you that the ornaments we borrow for it from the esthetic treasures of Humanity, must always be kept subordinate. Nor are they equally divided between the three prayers. By their nature, they are more adapted to aid our effusions than our commemoration. As such, the aid they give us is more available in the evening than in the morning. But the special purpose of them is, to free us from the necessity of making our mid-day prayer ourselves. We often find this difficult to do; and in this case the effusion with which we end may consist almost entirely in a judicious choice of passages from the poets. When singing and drawing shall have become as familiar as speaking and writing, by the aid of this help from without we shall be more able to meet our internal wants at times when, as is too frequently the case, our best emotions are languid.

The Woman. — Now that I understand our personal worship, I am endeavouring, my father, to anticipate your exposition by forming a conception of the domestic worship properly so called. But I cannot of myself, as yet, get a satisfactory idea of it. I quite see that the domestic, as well as the personal worship, can institute a constant adoration of the types common to the whole family. It can also in this, the elementary society, avail itself of the collective invocations which in public worship are addressed directly to Humanity. These two kinds of religious practices, under the natural priesthood of the head of the family, are susceptible, no doubt, of a high moral influence. Still, something is wanting to stamp on our domestic worship a character quite its own, so as to keep it distinct from the two which it is to connect.

our nine social sacraments — Presentation, initiation, admission, destination, marriage, maturity, retirement, transformation, and lastly incorporation

The Priest. — We meet this, my daughter by the institution of the social sacraments. They distinguish the domestic worship from the two others. They also form a natural transition. In these sacraments we consecrate each of the successive periods of our private life by connecting it with public life. Hence our nine social sacraments — Presentation, initiation, admission, destination, marriage, maturity, retirement, transformation, and lastly incorporation. They succeed one another in an unbroken series, and form so many preparations by which, during the whole of his objective life, the worthy servant of Humanity proceeds, in a gradual course, to the subjective eternity which is ultimately to constitute him in the strictest sense an organ of the Divinity we worship.

The Woman. — Within the normal limits of this Catechism you cannot, my father, give me a really complete explanation of all our sacraments. Still I hope you will be able to give me some idea of each.

The Priest. — In its first sacrament, my daughter, our religion, the final one, gives a systematic consecration to every birth. To this all previous religions had been instinctively led. The mother and the father of the new scion of Humanity come to present it to the priesthood. The priesthood receives from them a solemn engagement to fit the child for the service of Humanity. This natural guarantee is made more complete by two additional institutions, the germ of which Positivism thinks it an honour to borrow from Catholicism. It developes that germ under the impulse of its social principles. An artificial couple, chosen by the parents, with the approbation of the priesthood, ensures the new servant of the Supreme Being a fresh protection. That protection is mainly spiritual, but at need becomes temporal, and all the special witnesses concur in it. He also receives from his two families two particular patrons, one chosen from among the theoretical, the other from the practical, servants of Humanity. The names he derives from these two he must complete by a third; for at the time of his emancipation he must give himself a third name, selected, as the other two, from among the consecrated representatives of Humanity.

In the ancient civilization, this first sacrament was often refused, especially to those who were thought incapable of the destructive activity ‘which was then in especial request. But as the constitution of modem society more and more finds a use for natures of every order, the presentation will be almost invariably accepted by the priesthood, allowing for certain cases which are too entirely exceptions to need prevision.

The second sacrament bears the name of Initiation, as marking the first entrance into public life, when the child passes, at the age of fourteen, from its unsystematic training under the eye of its mother, to the systematic education given by the priesthood. Till that period, the advice of the priest is given solely to the parents, whether natural or artificial, to remind them of their essential duties during the first period of childhood. But now, the boy receives himself the advice from the priest, and no longer through, his parents. The aim of that advice is especially, to strengthen his heart against the injurious influences which too often accompany the intellectual training which he is now to undergo. This second sacrament may be put off, and sometimes refused, though very seldom, if the home education has been very unsuccessful.

Seven years later, the young disciple who has been first presented, then initiated, receives, as the consequence of his whole preparation the sacrament of admission. By it he is authorized freely to serve Humanity, whereas hitherto he received everything from Humanity and gave nothing in return. In civil legislation we find a constant recognition of the fact that it is necessary to put off, and even to refuse, this emancipation, in the case of those whose extremely defective organization, uncorrected by education, condemns them to perpetual infancy. The priesthood, as more qualified to form an accurate judgment, will not shrink from having recourse to measures of equal severity. But the direct consequences of their severity must never extend beyond the spiritual domain.

By this third sacrament, the child becomes a servant of Humanity. It does not, however, yet mark out his special career. This will often be different from that which it was supposed to be whilst his practical apprenticeship, and the education of his intellect, were proceeding together. He alone is the proper judge on this point; and he must judge on trial of himself for a sufficient length of time. Hence a fourth social sacrament. At the age of twenty-eight, allowing for a delay — a delay which may be either at his own request or enjoined — the sacrament of destination sanctions his choice of a career. The old worship offered us the rudiment, as it were, of this institution, confined to the case of the highest functions, in the ordination of priests and the coronation of kings. But Positive religion must always consider every useful profession a fit subject for social institution, with no distinction of public and private. The humblest servants of Humanity will come to receive in her temples, from the hands of her priests, this solemn consecration of their entering on any co-operative function whatsoever. This is the only sacrament that admits of being really repeated, though such repetition must be an exception.

The Woman. — I understand, my father, this series of consecrations prior to marriage, itself to be followed by our four other sacraments. As for marriage, the most important of them all, and which alone gives completeness to the whole series of man’s preparation, I already know the main points of the Positivist doctrine. Above all, I sympathize most deeply with the great institution of eternal widowhood, long looked for by the hearts of all true women. I recognise its importance for the family, and even for the city. But I see besides this, that under no other condition can we sufficiently develope our subjective life; under no other condition can our minds rise to the familiar representation of Humanity, by means of an adequate personification. All these precious notions had I made almost my own before I became your catechumen. I know also that you will return to this subject from another point of view, when explaining the régime. We may then enter on the last series of our consecrations.

The Priest. — First however, my daughter, we must settle what is the normal age for receiving the chief social sacrament. As marriage is to follow, and not precede, the choice of profession, men can only be admitted to it so far as it is a religious ordinance when they have accomplished their twenty-eighth year. The priesthood will even advise the Government to give the head of the family a legal veto, up to the age of thirty, in order the better to guard against any precipitation in the case of the most important of all our private actions. In the case of women, the sacrament of destination necessarily coincides with that of admission; for their vocation is always known and happily is uniform. They are therefore ready for marriage at the age of twenty-one, the age best fitted to secure the harmony of the marriage union. These are the lower limits of age, and must not be lowered for either sex, save on very exceptional grounds, which the priesthood must thoroughly weigh, and take the moral responsibility of sanctioning. But in general, the higher limits should not be fixed, though women should almost always marry before twenty-eight, men before thirty-five. This is the rule for married life under its best form.

The Woman. — The first sacrament after marriage seems to me, my father, sufficiently explained by the mere explanation of the term. You had already drawn my attention to the fact, that the full development of the human organism coincides in time with the completion of the man’s social preparation, nearly at the age of forty-two. I am now thinking only of your sex, for mine is not concerned with the sacrament of maturity. The social function of women is at once too uniform and too fixed to require either of the two consecrations that precede and follow marriage.

The Priest. — You have succeeded, my daughter, in forming, without any help from me, a right idea of our sixth sacrament. Still you would hardly be able, if you stopped at this point, to appreciate rightly its peculiar importance. During the twenty-one years which elapse between the sixth and the seventh sacrament, the man is going through the second period of his objective life, on which alone depends his subjective immortality. Previously, our life is simply a preparation. Naturally we are liable to mistakes, and those sometimes of a serious character, but never beyond reparation. From this time forwards, on the contrary, the faults we commit we can hardly ever repair, whether in reference to ourselves or to others. It is important, then, that there should be a solemn ceremony when we impose on the servant of Humanity the responsibility from which he can now no longer shrink. In this ceremony we must never lose sight of his peculiar function, now clearly determined.

The Woman. — The next sacrament, so far as I see, my father, is simply destined to mark the normal termination of that great period of complete and direct action, of which the sixth consecration marked the beginning.

The Priest. — On the contrary, my daughter, the sacrament of retirement is one of the most august and best determined of our sacraments. You will see that this is so, if you consider the last fundamental duty which is then discharged by each true servant of Humanity. It is an institution of Positivism, that every functionary, especially every temporal functionary, names his successor, subject to the sanction of his superior, and allowing for exceptional cases of moral or mental unworthiness, as I shall shortly explain to you. You see at once that there is no other means of adequately securing the continuity of man’s work. When at sixty-three, the citizen comes forward, of his own free will, to renounce active life, as his active powers are exhausted, and to have scope for the future for his legitimate influence as an adviser, he then solemnly exercises this last act of high authority, and by so doing publicly places such under the control of the priestly and popular elements of society. Their influence may lead him to modify his own action therein. The rich also transmit their office in obedience to the same rules; and to make their transmission complete, they hand over at the same time that portion of the capital of the race which forms the stock of the functionary, after he has made provision for his own personal wants.

The Woman. — Now, my father, I see the full social bearing of our seventh sacrament I looked on it at first as a kind of family festival.

As for the eighth, I am familiar enough with the true religion to understand of myself in what it consists. It is to be the substitute for the horrible ceremony of the Catholic ritual. Catholicism, free from all check on its anti-social character, openly tore the dying person from all his human affections, and made him stand quite alone before the judgment-seat of God. In our transformation, the priesthood mingles the regrets of society with the tears of his family, and shows that it has a just appreciation of the life that is ending. It first secures, where possible, compensation for errors committed, and then it generally holds out the hope of subjective incorporation. It must not, however, compromise itself by a premature judgment.

The Priest. — Your appreciation, my daughter, of the last objective sacrament is adequate. I will now explain to you the final consecration.

Seven years after death, when the passions that disturb the judgment are hushed, and yet the best sources of information remain accessible, a solemn judgment, an idea which, in its germ, sociolatry borrows from theocracy, finally decides the let of each. If the priesthood pronounces for incorporation, it presides over the transfer, with due pomp, of the sanctified remains. They had previously been deposited in the burial-place of the city; they now take their place for ever in the sacred wood that surrounds the temple of Humanity. Every tomb is ornamented with a simple inscription, a bust, or a statue, according to the degree of honour awarded.

As to the exceptional cases of marked unworthiness, the sign pf disgrace consists in transporting, in the proper way, the ill-omened burden to the waste place allotted to the reprobate, amongst those who died by the hand of justice, by their own hand, or in duel.

It does not seem to me that we [women] are sufficiently considered.

The Woman. — I have a clear idea of the nine social sacraments; but I feel, my father, a regret as regards my sex in general. It does not seem to me that we are sufficiently considered. I make no objection to our exclusion from three of these consecrations. Such exclusion is natural, and rests on grounds which are in the highest degree honourable to women. Their life is quieter, and requires therefore less attention on the part of religion. But I cannot conceive why the subjective paradise should be closed against those whom our religion proclaims most qualified to merit admission, I do not, however, see how women should, as a general rule, have this individual incorporation; for it must, in all case it seems to me, be the result of a public life; whereas public life is wisely forbidden our sex, except in very rare cases.

The Priest. — You will supply, my daughter, this serious defect, when you consider that 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.

The most important duty of woman is to form and perfect man. It would be, then, as absurd as it would be unjust to honour a good citizen, and neglect to honour the mother, the wife, to whom his success was mainly due. Around, and at times within, each consecrated tomb, the priesthood will be bound to collect, in the name of Humanity, all the individuals who helped its inmate, while alive, to perform the services she rewards. Your sex, by its superior organization, can taste more keenly the pure enjoyment that results from the mere growth and exercise of good feelings; but it should not, therefore, renounce its claim to just praise — much less should it renounce the subjective immortality whose value it so thoroughly appreciates.

The Woman. — This explanation completes your previous ones. It remains for me, my father, to ask you, wherein lies the obligation for each to receive our different sacraments?

The Priest. — They must always, my daughter, be purely optional, so far as any legal obligation is concerned. They bind a man; but they bind him with a simply moral obligation, the existence of which is proved by our education and sanctioned by opinion.

The better to preserve this their purely spiritual character, on which more than anything else they depend for their efficiency, our sacraments must not be the only ones accessible. Side by side with them there should be parallel institutions, established and maintained by the temporal power, and these last alone can be enforced in every case. The judgment of the temporal power, less discriminating and less strict, will dispense with the religious rites in the case of those who may feel alarm at them, and who yet can render society services which it would be a pity to lose or impair.

For instance, we must not look on civil marriage as an anarchical institution, though it is of revolutionary origin. It is to be regarded as the necessary preliminary for a religious marriage, and it may dispense legally with this latter. The contrary custom was the result of an usurpation on the part of Catholicism, which Positivism will never imitate. Those who shrink from the law of widowhood, essential to the performance of a Positivist marriage, must contract a civil union, to preserve them from vice and secure the legal rights of their children. The same holds good, though in a less degree, for most of our social sacraments, especially for admission and destination. The priesthood ought, in case of need, to urge the Government to institute legal rules with the object of moderating the just strictness of our religious prescriptions. The observance of our sacraments will never be enforced, nor will it ever have any other reward than that of conscience and opinion.

Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion [1852], translated by Richard Congreve (London: J. Chapman, 1858). p. 118-139.

Living with The Dead: The Positivist Year

Mary Ann Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot
Mary Ann Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot

George Eliot sang the song of her joyful anticipation of the Positivist afterlife with her famous O May I Join the Choir Invisible! in 1867:

Longum illud tempus, quum non ero, magis me movet, quam hoc exiguum.
Cicero, ad Att., xii. 18.

    O MAY I join the choir invisible
    Of those immortal dead who live again
    In minds made better by their presence: live
    In pulses stirred to generosity,
    In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
    For miserable aims that end with self,
    In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
    And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
    To vaster issues.
                                       So to live is heaven:
    To make undying music in the world,
    Breathing as beauteous order that controls
    With growing sway the growing life of man.
    So we inherit that sweet purity
    For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
    With widening retrospect that bred despair.
    Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
    A vicious parent shaming still its child
    Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
    Its discords, quench’d by meeting harmonies,
    Die in the large and charitable air.
    And all our rarer, better, truer self,
    That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
    That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
    Laboriously tracing what must be,
    And what may yet be better,—saw within
    A worthier image for the sanctuary,
    And shaped it forth before the multitude
    Divinely human, raising worship so
    To higher reverence more mixed with love,—
    That better self shall live till human Time
    Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
    Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
    Unread forever.
                                               This is life to come,
    Which martyred men have made more glorious
    For us who strive to follow. May I reach
    That purest heaven, be to other souls
    The cup of strength in some great agony,
    Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
    Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
    Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
    And in diffusion ever more intense.
    So shall I join the choir invisible
    Whose music is the gladness of the world.


Text from George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy the Legend of Jubal and Other Poems, Old an New (Edinburgh/ London: W. Blackwood & Sons, 1870), p.458.

Death became an integral part of positivist life. A passage of transition, so the ninth sacrament, a transition from personal consciousness into collective consciousness under control of the collective was provided by the new emerging public institutions. Catholicism offered the framework for the transition from present state of transcendental religions into the future of the new collective religion of the past, the present, and the future:

Catholicism offers two institutions in which the religion of the family connects itself with public worship in its most comprehensive sense. There is a day appointed in Catholic countries in which all are in the habit of visiting the tombs of those dear to them; finding consolation for their grief by sharing it with others. To this custom Positivists devote the last day of the year. The working classes of Paris give every year a noble proof that complete freedom of thought is in no respect compatible with worship of the dead, which in their case is unconnected with any system. Again there is the institution of baptismal names, which though little thought of at present, will be maintained and improved by Positivism. It is an admirable mode of impressing on men the connexion of private with public life, by furnishing every one with a type for his own personal imitation. Here the superiority of the new religion is very apparent; since the choice of a name will not be limited to any time or country. In this, as in other cases, the absolute spirit of Catholicism proved fatal to its prospects of becoming universal.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.382.

Positivism will become universal — or to be more precise: global — with and through the global implementation of the Positivist Calendar.

Calendrier Positiviste, from Comte, Catechisme, ed. 1891, p.333
Calendrier Positiviste, from Comte, Catechisme, ed. 1891, p.333. (Gallica France)

The calendar has simple practical purposes, to be openly reflected by all the architects of positivist temples and chapels: It sets the course of private reflection and public festivals throughout the year not for a nation but for all nations who would synchronise their activities through the calendar.

The calendar reflects at the same moment the complex use Positivism would make of history. Comte would aim at the greatest imaginable historical disruption – he speaks of the revolution of Positivism in the following passages. He is, however, just as interested in smooth passages, in an integration of all competing movements, and this is where history becomes the new discourse of power. The historical debate becomes the central platform on which the new world order negotiates and arranges its position. The religions and philosophies of mankind, its – allegedly – darkest eras deserve a place of commemoration in history and in our yearly practices of commemoration. The entire course of commemorations ensures that this will remain a position of relative importance.

This is the short summary Comte gives of the Calendar in the fourth volume of his System of Positive Polity with the aim to keep things flexible at the risk of stabilising them as no system had stabilised them before:

The Positivist Calendar.

As the very essence of the revolutionary principle consists in the breach of continuity, it devolves upon Positivism at the present day to begin its social action by systematising public, commemoration, which is misapprehended by all existing schools equally. For this reason, without waiting for the termination of the present work, I took pains to inaugurate the organic transition by the construction of the Positivist Calendar; its triumphant success attests the reasonableness of this initial step. In the very first edition published in 1849 I explained that the calendar was a provisional institution, destined for the present exceptional century, to serve as an introduction to the abstract worship of Humanity, the nature and plan of which I even then indicated, in perfect agreement with their fuller developement, as given in this volume.

Three degrees in this concrete glorification of Humanity. Chronological place of the types fixed by the calendar. – Names of the months.

For the concrete glorification of the Great Being, I take the highest individual types of the preliminary period, and arrange them in three ranks, monthly, weekly and daily, beginning with the initial Theocracy and ending with the early beginnings of the final crisis. In this scheme Fetichism alone is without its commemoration, Fetichism never having been able to throw up any names. But the definitive amalgamation of Fetichism with Positivism will be so clearly indicated in the festivals of the organic transition, that its enforced omission can lead to no unjust depreciation of the indispensable commencement of the whole human evolution.

For each degree of our ideal presentation of the past, the chronological order removes all uncertainty as to the position of any given type; so that the festivals might in all cases serve as dates. But such use of them I have always left optional, except in reference to the first degree; there the best servants of the Great Being find their highest honour in giving names to the thirteen months of the Positivist year. As early as the second edition of the Calendar, published in 1850, in a separate pamphlet, I introduced the indispensable nomenclature, now definitively consecrated by use. Its success leads me to give an answer now to the question raised in the second chapter of this volume, as to the ultimate names of the Positive months, for which I think I ought to adopt those given them for the transition. Although concrete, the nomenclature is yet so general in its character as to be adapted to the abstract worship, in which latter I have even used it for the days of the week, in order to restore the familiar sense of the most important instance of continuity.

The Positive Era. – Provisional era 1789.

The case is different for the Positive era, which, until the close of the organic transition, must be dated from the beginning of the French Revolution; it being important that all Occidentals should have a ready measure of its course. The incomparable assembly which guided the Republican outbreak made a serious mistake on this point, from its not recognizing what posterity has recognized, that the Republic really began with the taking of the Bastille by the people of Paris. I have Provisional restored, then, the custom adopted by its predecessor, on this single point instinctively its superior, by virtue of an irresistible impulse; that predecessor, moreover, respecting the traditional arrangement of the Western year, from a presentiment of the reasons for it, as given in the second chapter of this volume.

Definitive era. 1855.

But the normal state cannot adhere to an era which recalls an anarchical explosion, soon followed by a long reaction. And yet the future were not satisfactorily connected with the past, if the opening date of the ultimate chronology of the world be not fixed in this exceptional century. To comply with both conditions, it is enough if we place the Positive era at the beginning of the organic transition, the work reserved for the last of the three generations which intervene between the extinction of Theologism and the establishment of Positivism. Chronologically, this gives us the year 1855 as our starting point; sociologically a well-marked point, as we have in it the striking coexistence of a definitive dictatorship with the complete construction of the Religion of Humanity. The provisional and the ultimate era, then, of the Positivist Calendar must differ by two thirds of a century; a difference which facilitates our habitual comparison of the present with the future or the past.

For intellectual purposes, the monthly and weekly types would suffice.

Were the object of this system of commemoration purely, we might stop at the two first degrees, as conjointly offering a sufficient presentation of the philosophy of history, so far at least as regards the Western transition as a whole. After having, in the first month, glorified all the theocratic ties of the human Family, each subsequent monthly type marks a phase of man’s education or an essential aspect of a phase. The four weekly types, in subordination to the monthly type, are above all meant to be the representatives of the principal modes or degrees of the phase of evolution with which they are connected, and which through them becomes clear. So complemented, the succession of the thirteen monthly types forms an adequate idealization of the whole past. The two series, as the basis of our system of commemoration, will ever be an integral part of the normal worship in the three months it devotes to history, as these sixty-five names are almost all employed in the concrete developement of the abstract festivals, as may be seen by reference to the conspectus of Sociolatry.

The daily types required for moral purposes.

Important as it is to impress, by means of art, on the Western mind the general conception of the past, the main destination of the historical calendar is yet a moral one; to revive, that is, the sense of continuity everywhere in profound decay.’ To the children of revolution who turn to the future in contempt of the past, the priesthood of Humanity steps forward to proclaim the Great Being by the honour it pays to its best servants. Therefore it is that the concrete worship should be instituted on such a scale, that the veneration due to our ancestors may issue in devotion to our posterity. The past has been misjudged, and its pressure should at the present day be made sensible by a multiplication of individual connections, to be condensed later when continuity is firmly established. The expansion is no less desirable on another ground; it may help to overcome the selfishness of theological and the individualism of metaphysical belief, by awakening in all the noble desire of honourable incorporation with the supreme existence. For these reasons it is, that the Western commemoration should at present include daily types, always arranged in chronological order, but chosen indifferently from the precursors, rivals, and successors of the weekly type. I was thus led, from the very beginning, to make the concrete worship still more complete, by adopting for certain days secondary names, to be substituted for their principals in leap years.

Suplementary Names

It is solely in reference to these secondary names, distinguished by italics in the Calendar (see below), that I have occasionally profited by the judicious observations not unfrequently made to me during the last five years, with a view to improving the Western calendar, by addition or substitution. The result of this gradual amelioration is that, as a construction, it leaves me no regret on the score of omission, though I hold myself bound to carefully examine any new proposals, provided they be not purely negative in character. I alone as yet am at the Western point of view, and I am sufficiently clear of partiality towards France to judge all distinguished names whatsoever through the veil of national illusions.

Insufficiency of the concrete worship.

A comparison of the Calendar with the preceding volume insufficiency brings out clearly the inevitable defects of the concrete worship, its inability, viz., to embrace the larger portion of man s educational stage. Not only is it unable on the grounds already assigned to include Fetichism, it pays but scanty honour to the Theocracy, the highest types of the Theocracy being lost to us, in consequence of the admirable self-denial which was characteristic of the system; and the result is that I have been driven to incorporate in the first month some collective commemorations and even some purely mythical names. Throughout the remainder of the Calendar, the number of the festivals is seldom in proportion to the importance of the phase; so that a synoptical table, the main object of which is to place before us the Western transition as a whole, fails as a comparison of its principal phases. It gives three months to the intellectual movement of Greece, whilst Roman civilization is condensed into one, and half even of that concerns what is but indirectly a preparation for it. If two months are really sufficient to idealize the nine centuries of the Middle Ages, the evolution of modern times would seem not to deserve sis. Of the five constituents of the Western world, the Spanish type receives but scant honour; for the superiority of Spain, admirable as it is, is a superiority in feeling, and as such cannot be adequately appreciated when we are commemorating the developement of intellect and activity. These various defects may be, it is true, in great measure, remedied by the wisdom of its interpreters, still they are inseparable from the concrete worship, and its function therefore is simply to prepare the existing generation for the abstract glorification of the past.

In the Calendar theoretical and practical services prevail over moral.

This enumeration of the inevitable shortcomings of the historical calendar would be incomplete, if we omitted to remark that, in it, intellectual or practical services naturally are of more weight than moral desert, our object being to understand aright the developement of the powers of man at a time when the discipline of those powers was impossible. The calendar is not meant to give us examples of conduct; for such, in any large numbers, we must wait for the normal state; its purpose is to call us back from anarchy — to subordination to the past, through the honouring the individual instruments of the progress achieved by the race. Although the list should, after the transition, serve invariably in our choice of baptismal names, that is to say, when it has received its full completeness, this is a use of it which will always require the intervention of the priesthood, if we would avoid undesirable patrons. Even in classifying the intellectual types, in some instances I have been obliged to look to the results attained rather than to individual merit, such results mainly depending on their circumstances, in some cases favourable to their vocation, in others adverse. Of the six thinkers ranked under Bacon, three were in my judgment his superiors, but their superiority lacked the opportunity to evince itself by their giving as great an impulse as Bacon gave to the intellectual progress; the contrast is similar between Lagrange and Newton.

The calendar truly provisional.

Such is the spirit in which the calendar is to be studied and taught, as a summing up the whole commemoration of the past. Though almost entirely devoted to the vast transition through which the Western world had to pass from Theocracy to Sociocracy, it may be looked upon in the present day as representing the whole initiation of mankind, the issue of which is furnished us by this transition. The instinct of continuity was not really impaired, save in these thirty centuries, and as a termination of them. Positivism recalls the Western nations, increasingly revolutionary, to the normal attitude of the Theocrats and the Fetichists, its aim being the union of the race. Putting aside the fact that the general plan of the historical calendar indicates by itself its purely provisional intention, there are details in the construction which directly announce as proximate the advent of the normal cultus; I allude to the abstract character of the two festivals with which it ends. For the last day of the year and the additional day in leap years are the same festivals as those which stand last in the Conspectus of Sociolatry.

Two provisions requisite to complete the above.

So I am led on to complete my exposition by two explanations which are indispensable to a clear comparison of the transitional worship in its actual state with its previous state in former editions, that in the Positivist Catechism included.

(1) The days of the week not consecrated to the fundamental ties.

A feeling of kindness, a feeling; quite undeserved, prompted my recommendation of a specious proposal to consecrate the days of the week to the fundamental ties of human society. Not only, however, is the plan not adapted for the normal state, where the months perform this office, but it would be useless during the transition, when we have only to consider public festivals; the personal worship, and the domestic sacraments having already attained their definitive state. The abortive attempt will leave no other trace but the touching series of prayers to which it gave occasion; the author, a true Positivist, will disengage them from this connection and distinguish them by their several objects, adhering to the established names.

(2) Suppression of all reprobation.

A more important explanation regards the day devoted to reprobation, which from the ‘General View’ passed into all the editions, of the Calendar, having been introduced into my lectures. I was led to a capital modification of it by the objections of a lady; subsequently the honourable remonstrance of a British Positivist has led me to reflect and on reflection entirely to abandon the idea. I had always so far seen the exceptional character of the institution as to limit it to the first four bissextile years of the organic transition. But on sifting more thoroughly the reasons assigned for this limitation, I decided not to divert the complementary day from its normal destination, as given above. Recognizing the danger of any regular cultivation of the feelings of hatred even when indignation is most legitimate, we must especially avoid any stimulus to these feelings in a milieu prone to criticism, and in which Positivism aims at reestablishing veneration. Eulers, whose misconduct is traceable in the main to an ill-governed desire for celebrity, find their best punishment in oblivion, the more effective by contrast with the honour paid to the higher types. A ceremony specially devoted to reproval would risk, with an incompetent public, the misapplication of the principles on which we should be compelled to ground our condemnation.

Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity, vol. 4 [1854] (London: Longmans, Green and co., 1877), p.346-351.

See our special page on the Positivist Calendar for a conversion tool and the code for web site owners.

The Temples of Positivism

Comte had no qualms about using the present infrastructure of religious buildings for the new religion in the initial phase. The new relogion had to spread without the immediate support of city planners and architects.

The buildings erected for the service of God may for a time suffice for the worship of Humanity, in the same way that Christian worship was carried on at first in Pagan temples as they were gradually vacated. But ultimately buildings will be required more specially adapted to a religion in which all the functions connected with education and worship are so entirely different. What these buildings will be it would be useless at present to inquire. It is less easy to foresee the Positivist ideal in Architecture than in any other arts. And it must remain uncertain until the new principles of education have been generally spread, and until the Positivist religion, having received all the aid that Poetry, Music, and the arts of Form can give, has become the accepted faith of Western Europe. When the more advanced nations are heartily engaged in the cause, the true temples of Humanity will soon arise. By that time mental and moral regeneration will have advanced far enough to commence the reconstruction of all political institutions. Until then the new religion will avail itself of Christian churches as these gradually become vacant.

Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism [1848] (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.386.

In the long run The new religion needed, however, its own architectural patterns: temples suited to the particular yearly cultus. The following document dates from 13 August 1850 (1 Guttemberg 61), an it is again relatively specific with all its recommendations.

M.COM.87_1_001, Document of the Auguste Comte House in Paris
Design of a Temple of Humanity in Comte’s own hand, 13 August 1850. Archives de la Maison Auguste Comte: M.COM.87_1_001

The Parisian Chapel Chapelle de l’Humanité Maison de Clotilde de Vaux which was inaugurated on 2 June 1905, long after Comte’s death, is in it vital features influenced by Comte’s indications for the vestibule larger temples would have. The Liverpool temple, inaugurated in 1914 has preserved features of the larger plan. At least three Positivist temples are still maintained in Brazil: the largest in Rio de Janeiro, a newly renovated on in Porto Alegre and a Chapel in Curitiba, Paraná. The Temple that was built in Ia?i, Romania on the initiative of Panait Zosin was destroyed in the events of the revolution of 1989.

Photo by Eneas De Troya, flickr
Igreja de Porto Alegre. Stairs with the elements of Comte’s Static Sociology: “proletariate”; “patriciate”; “priesthood”; “women”; “monotheism”; “polytheism”; “fetishism”; “domesticity”; “fraternity”. Photo by Eneas De Troya, flickr.

Positivist Congregational Life

The network of positivist congregations that was growing in the second half of the 19th century is today a thing of the past. The temple in Rio is under construction. The congregation Porto Alegre remains active. Hugo Pinto’s film is a vivid document of congregational life there:

"The Last Religion" (Documentary about Positivism in Brazil, 2015) from Hugo Pinto on Vimeo.

Recommended reading
  • Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, translated by Richard Congreve (London: J. Chapman, 1858). → Internet Archive
  • John Stuart Mill [Passages on] Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity [1865] (London: N. Trübner, 1866). (
  • Henri de Lubac The Drama of Atheist Humanism [Paris:Spes, 1944] (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995). Google Books
  • Andrew Wernick, Auguste Comte and the Religion of Humanity: The Post-Theistic Program of French Social Theory. Cambridge University Pres, / [just the front matter and intoroduction at]
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