Regarding the second principle, one usually remembers only the ideaof spiritual power but such a power can be understood only in itsrelation to temporal power: by nature it is a moderating power, whichpresupposes the existence of a temporal power, which in contrast doesnot presuppose the existence of a spiritual power. Furthermore, Comtestrongly disagrees with historical materialism : it is ideas that rulethe world, in the sense that there is no sustainable social orderwithout a minimal consensus on the principles that govern life insociety. Initially, Comte planed to entrust this new spiritual powerto scientists, because he saw science not only as the rational basisfor our action upon nature, but also as the spiritual basis of socialorder.
Since at least half a century, positive politics is discarded asreactionary and totalitarian and it is true that, in many respects,Comte was resolutely anti modern but, specially in his later writings,he also held ideas which sound amazingly in keeping with contemporaryconcerns. For instance, he had an acute feeling for the way humanityis dependent on astronomical conditions: assume small changes in theelliptical orbit of Earth, in the inclination of Ecliptic, and life,at least life as we know it, would have been impossible. Humanity, theproper study of sociology, is closely connected to the Earth, thehuman planet, ‘with ist two liquid envelopes’. In spite ofthe Copernican revolution, Earth remains for each of us the firm,unshakable ground upon which everything stands. See for instance whathe says about fatherland and the way ‘the Tent, the Car or theShip are to the nomad family a sort of moveable Country, connectingthe Family or the Horde with its material basis, as with us the gypsyin his van’ (1851, v. 2 285, E. 2 237). Politics is grounded ingeopolitics, where geo retains its etymological meaning,Gaia, and where Earth is understood as a planet in the solarsystem
Apart from that difficulty, the weaknesses of the positive polity arenumerous. Among them, those that are the most conspicuous (criticismof human rights, praise of dictatorship) are not necessarily the mostserious, for objections to the former are easily answered. Forexample, while Comte criticizes freedom of conscience, he is alwayshighly supportive of freedom of expression. We should also find hisdeep respect for spontaneity reassuring, considering that it is animportant part of our idea of freedom. More serious, perhaps, seem tobe the consequences of the rejection of psychology. The moralquestion, ‘What should I do?’, is no longer asked in thefirst person, and is transformed into an engineering problem:‘What should be done to make men more ethical?’ Similarly,the positivists were invited to live openly, whereby the distinctionbetween private and public lives disappears.
The limits of Comte's philosophy of science are easily seen, but thisdoes not diminish their value, which remains considerable. Yet thesame cannot be said of the positive polity. Given that the separationof spiritual power and temporal power rests on the separation betweentheory and practice, Comte abstained from any direct political action,and, for example, condemned Mill's decision to stand inparliament. But his own project for the reorganization of societypresents a similar problem. In his writings, it is difficult todistinguish that which concerns objective social science from a reformprogram that reflects only a personal stand.
On the whole, the System was not well received. Almostimmediately, Mill and Littré put forward the idea that therewere a good Comte, the author of the Course, and a bad Comte,the author of the System. However, it is impossible toconfine oneself merely to the Course. The early works hadmade a strong impression on some of the best minds of the time; theyremain required reading for everyone wishing to understand positivephilosophy, as they are still among the best introductions to thesubject. The Course was not part of the initial project,which Comte never lost sight of; the work is best considered as aparenthesis, admittedly open for twenty years, but which Comte hadmeant to close very quickly. The reason why Comte had always presentedthe Plan of 1822 as fundamental is that, beginning with thevery title, one finds the two themes that he planned to think throughin their relation to one another: science and society. The foremostquestion is a political one: how should society be reorganized?Science, although present from the beginning, plays a secondary roleas the means to achieve the chosen goal. All of Comte's work aims atthe foundation of a discipline in which the study of society willfinally become positive, scientific. His idea of sociology is notquite the one we are used to today; but the current meaning of theterm ‘positivism’, according to which it is merely aphilosophy of science, is even more misleading as a clue to Comte'sthought. Even though the founder of positivism is rightly consideredto be one of the great philosophers of science, along withPoincaré and Carnap, his natural place is elsewhere, along withsociologists such as his contemporaries Marx and Tocqueville. Onlywhen the question arises of what distinguishes Comte from the latterdoes science enter into the picture.
The transformation of philosophy into religion does not yield areligion of science because, having overcome modern prejudices, Comte nowunhesitatingly ranks art above science. Now that the break-up with theacademic world was complete, the positivists placed their hopes on analliance with women and proletarians. Comte (who after Clotilde'sdeath obsessively, even cultishly, devoted himself to her) reserved adecisive role in the positive era for women. However, this aspect ofhis work is difficult to accept for a contemporary reader, inparticular because it involves the utopian idea of the virgin mother,which means parthenogenesis for human beings. As for the proletarians,he saw them as spontaneous positivists, just as the positivists weresystematic proletarians!
Soon after finishing the Course, Comte returned to hisinitial project and began outlining the System of PositivePolity. The Discourse on the Positive Spirit, which hadserved as the preface to the Philosophical Treatise on PopularAstronomy (1844), had already emphasized the social purpose ofpositivism and its aptitude to replace theology in politics andmorality. But his encounter with Clotilde de Vaux would turn his lifeupside down and give Comte's second career an unexpected twist.
Even though each new edition of Mill's System of Logic sawfewer references to the Course than the previous one (in thefirst edition there had been more than a hundred), the influence ofComte on Mill ran deep, to an extent that today is greatlyunderestimated (Raeder 2002). Mill'sAutobiography is quite explicit on this point, as Comtefigures much more prominently in it than Tocqueville, with whom Millhad been in contact for a longer time. Conversely, Mill contributedmuch to the spreading of positivism. His book on Comte (Mill 1865)enjoyed a considerable success, and he [Mill] himself was sometimesconsidered a positivist.
Today, we are no longer used to associate positivism andpolitics. However, the later was present from the outset, when Comteserved as secretary of Saint-Simon, and it was quite influencial atthe end of the nineteenth century. The two main tenets of positivepolitics are : there is no society without government; the properfunctioning of society requires a spiritual power independent from thetemporal power.
After 1846, Mill quickly distanced himself from his correspondent. Heeven went so far to describe the Système as “thecompletest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yetemanated from a human brain, unless possibly that of IgnatiusLoyola” (Autobiography, 213). Such judgments, and thereare many, represent one extreme in a much more balanced globalassessment. Comte's later philosophy deserves criticism, but Mill waswas able to see its strong points and mention them. The lastsentences of Mill's 1865 book give a good example of the unique way hemanages to mix approval and harsh criticism:
The Course's first readers are to be found in Great Britain;the reform projects of the English Radicals had many points in commonwith the positivist concerns. A reading of the first volumes madeenough of an impression on Mill to induce him to write to theirauthor. The correspondence that followed, which lasted from 1841 to1846, is of considerable philosophical interest. In his first letter,Mill presents himself almost as a follower of Comte and recalls how,some ten years before, it had been the reading of Comte's 1822 workthat had liberated him from the influence of Bentham. But the tone ofthe letters, while remaining friendly, soon changes. Mill does nothesitate to voice objections to the exclusion of psychology from theclassification of the sciences and to Comte's conception ofbiology. In particular, Mill had strong reservations about Gall'sphrenology, while Comte endorsed it, and proposed to replace it byethology. Their disagreements crystallize around ‘la questionféminine’,that is the status of women in society, whereit is possible to see how epistemological and political considerationsare linked (Guillin 2007).
The first principle has two sides. A negative one: it expressesComte's lack of interest in the concept of State. A positive one : inorder to understand why there must be a government, we have toconsider how social life works. Surprisingly, Comte's starting pointis the same as Hayek's, namely the existence of a spontaneousorder. The title of the fiftieth lesson of the Course reads:Social statics, or theory of spontaneous order of humansociety. But, for positivism, spontaneous order covers allnatural phenomena and is moreover neither perfect nor immutable. Ingeneral, human action aims to substitute for this natural order anartificial one, more in line with our desires. Government action isonly a special case, applied to the spontaneous order intrinsic tohuman society, which is determined by division of labor. Theincreasing specialization which accompanied it, even if it is the sinequa non condition of progress, threatens the cohesion of society. Thatis why a government is needed: its function is ‘to check thedisorganizing and to foster the converging tendencies’ of theagents (1852, 205; E. 277).