The social philosophy of Auguste Comte


THERE can be no doubt that society originated in social instincts, and was not merely the result of utilitarian considerations. Indeed, the social state could manifest its ability only when well developed, and in the early ages of humanity the advantages to the individual of association would not be obvious.

What, then, are the human instincts and requirements which give society its fundamental characters? In the first place it must be noted that in man the intellectual is subordinate to the affective. In most men the intellectual faculties are easily fatigued, and require a strong and constant stimulus to keep them at work. In the majority of cases the stimulus is derived from the needs of organic life; but in more highly endowed individuals the incitement may proceed from higher affective impulses. This subordination of the intellectual to the affective faculties is beneficent in that it gives a permanent end and aim to the intellectual activity.

In the second place it must be noted that the personal affections are stronger than the social affections, and that personal affections give aim and direction to our social actions. This is necessary, for all ideas of public good must be inferred from ideas of private advantage, and if it were possible to repress our personal affections, our social affections, deprived of necessary inspiration and direction, would become vague and ineffective. In the precept that bids us love our neighbours as ourselves the personal instinct is suggested as the pattern for the social. The only thing to be regretted is that the personal affections are apt to over-ride, instead of stimulating, the social affections.

Increase of intelligence must mean greater capacity for social affection, because of the discipline it imposes on the personal affections; and for the same reason increase of the social instinct is favourable to intelligence. To strengthen this reciprocal action of the intellect and the social affections is the first task of universal morals. And the double opposition between man's moral and material need of intellectual toil and his dislike of it, and again between man's moral and material need of the social affections and the subjection of these to his personal instincts, discloses the scientific germ of the struggle which we shall have to review between the conservative and the retorming spirit; the first of which is animated by purely personal instincts, and the other by the spontaneous combination of intellectual activity with the various social instincts.

Society, however, cannot be regarded as composed of individuals. The true social unit is the family; it is essentially on the plan of the family that society is constructed. In a family the social and the personal instincts are blended and reconciled; in a family, too, the principle of subordination and mutual co-operation is exemplified. The domestic is the basis of all social life. The modern tendency, therefore, to attack the institution of the family is an alarming symptom of social disorganization.

The sociological basis of the family depends on subordination of sexes and of ages.

MARRIAGE at once satisfies, disciplines and harmonises the strongest and most disorderly instinct of our animal nature; and though it may be attacked by the revolutionary spirit because of its theological implications, yet the institution is based on true principles and must survive. No doubt marriage has been modified, but to modify is not to overthrow, and its fundamental principle remains intact.

The fundamental principle of the institution of marriage is the natural subordination of the woman--a principle which has reappeared under all forms of marriage. Biology teaches that radical differences, physical and moral, distinguish the sexes, and sociology will prove that the much-advertised equality of sexes is a fiction, and that equality of the sexes would be incompatible with all social existence. Each sex has special functions it must perform in the family, and the necessary subordination of one sex is in no wise injurious, since the happiness of every being depends on the wise development of its proper nature. Our social system depends on intellectual activity under affective stimulus, and in power of mental labour the woman is incontestably inferior to the man, either because her mental powers are weaker, or because her lively moral and physical sensibility is unfavourable to mental concentration.

Besides the bond of marriage, which holds together society, there is the bond between parents and children. Here again we find the principle of subordination in force, and even as we find wild revolutionaries who challenge the principle of subordination in women, so there are some who would challenge the same principle in the case of children. Fortunately, popular good sense and the primary instincts resist such absurdities.

The spontaneous subordination in the human family is the best model for society. On the one hand, we see obedience and due subordination allied to gratitude, and unassociated with shame; and, on the other hand, we see absolute authority combined with affection and geniality. There are those who would take children from their parents' care, and hand them over to society, and there are those who would prevent the transmission of property from parents to children; but such extravagances need not be examined here.

Coming now to the consideration of society as constructed out of the family units, we see unity of aim associated with diversity of functions. It is a marvellous spectacle to see how in a society the individuals pursuing each their own end yet unconsciously co-operate; and this co-operation is the mainspring of society. In the family, co-operation is much less marked; for the family is founded chiefly on affection, and in affection finds its justification, quite apart from co-operation towards any end. In society the instinct of co-operation preponderates and the instinct of affection plays only a secondary part. There are exceptional men in whom the affective side of the social instinct is dominant; but such men in most cases give their affection to the race at large simply from lack of domestic sympathy.

THE principle of co-operation, spontaneous or concerted, is the basis of society, and the object of society must ever be to find the right place for its individual members in its great co-operative scheme. There is, however, a danger of exaggerated specialism; it concentrates the attention of individuals on small parts of the social machine, and thus narrows their sense of the social community, and produces an indifference to the larger interests of humanity. It is lamentable to find an artisan spending his life making pin-heads, and it is equally lamentable to find a man with mind employing his mind only in the solution of equations.

To guard against such social and intellectual disintegration must be the duty of government. It must foster the feeling of interconnexion between individuals; and such a bond of feeling must be intellectual and moral rather than material, and will always imply subordination. The social instinct of man spontaneously produces government, and there is a much stronger instinct of obedience in man than is commonly supposed. Who has not felt it good to resign the responsibility of conduct to wise and trustworthy guidance? Even in revolutionary times the people feel the need of preponderant authority, and political subordination is as inevitable as it is indispensable.


HUMAN progress consists essentially in the evolution of the moral and intellectual qualities proper to man. Various circumstances facilitate and retard this progress. Most of the occupations of civilization which deal with material things relieve man from material cares and discomforts, and permit him to use his higher faculties.

Death, too, may be considered a promoter of human progress. Youth is essentially progressive, age essentially conservative and opposed to progress, and death it is that prevents old age from too seriously impeding the progress of the world. If life were ten times as long progress would be greatly retarded.

On the other hand, death interferes with continuity of work, and by interrupting a man's work often delays its fruition. It is probable that if life were twice or thrice as long progress would be more rapid.

Human progress is directed by the reason, and the history of the progress of society is largely the history of the human mind in its progress through its three stages--the theological, metaphysical and positive. The necessity of these stages can be shown.

At first man knows nothing but himself, and it was inevitable that he should explain things as produced by a being like himself. The theological philosophy gave a basis for observation by its hypotheses that phenomena were products of actions like human acts, and that all bodies had life like human life, and that there was an invisible world with invisible agents. These hypotheses were not only intellectually necessary; they were also morally necessary, for they gave man confidence to act, and hope that he could modify anything unsatisfactory in the universe by appeals to its maker. Not only did the theological philosophy sustain man's courage, and kindle his hope and increase his sense of power, but it gave an intellectual unanimity of great social and political value; and, producing a special speculative class, made the first effective division between things of matter and things of mind.

Still, the theological philosophy was obviously only temporary. Indeed, at all times there had been glimmerings of positive belief, for at all times the simplest phenomena had been considered subject to natural laws, and all had been compelled to act in everyday affairs on the assumption of the invariability of natural law. The positive philosophy, therefore, was inevitable from the first.

Between the theological and positive philosophy naturally and necessarily has intervened the metaphysical, which has substituted entities for a deity. This philosophy has never had the social power or the consistency of the theological philosophy; its entities have been mere abstractions. It has and has had such political power simply because so elusive.

All the three philosophies I have mentioned may exist in the same mind at the same time with regard to various sciences. The same mind may have a theological conception of one science, a metaphysical of another and a positive of yet another; but the trend is towards the positive.

Material progress has gone through similar stages. The primitive tendency of mankind was to a military life; the present tendency is towards industrial life. Meantime, we are in the transitional stage between the two, for we have defensive instead of offensive military organization, which is becoming more and more subordinate to industrial production.

The military stage corresponded with the theological stage, belonged to the same regime had common antipathies and sympathies as well as general interests, and could not have worked without the aid of theological convictions to give blind confidence in military superiors. The industrial stage corresponds with the positive stage; it is akin in spirit, in origin and in destination. The transitional stage, again, corresponds with the metaphysical stage. Only on these three dualisms which I have established can a sound historical philosophy be based.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I