Sunday, 29 March 2009

Comte and Christianity

This LRB article on Comte and the nineteenth-century (a review of Thomas Dixon's Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain) is interesting.
Possibly no political moralist in modern Western culture has been so widely influential – nor so often overlooked and forgotten – as the 19th-century French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte, the inventor of positivism, altruism and the ‘religion of humanity’. In libraries throughout Europe, weighty editions of Comte’s works remain with their pages uncut more than a hundred and fifty years after his death. Yet the residues of Comtean visions and conceptions still permeate many aspects of European thought and institutions. They may be discerned in the emphasis on social science as the supreme guide to public policy, on the ‘priestly’ role of technical, medical and managerial ‘experts’, on human welfare as the sole touchstone of ethical life, on ‘law’ as a set of disembodied norms rather than the edicts of rulers or case law, and on the future destiny of Europe as a unified ‘Great Western Republic’ in place of an inchoate cluster of historic nations. All these perspectives are clearly recognisable in the public culture of Europe in the early 21st century. Yet the name of Auguste Comte is unknown to countless people whose daily lives and mental outlook are widely shaped or impinged on by his principles.
But this caught my eye:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1857) dismissed Comte's doctrines as intrinsically 'absurd'; yet the poem centred on the heroic tragedy of a man who practised the supreme positivist virtues of altruism or 'sacrifice for others', at the expense of the more prosaic Christian virtues of common sense, kindness and love.
I can see that as an account of the poem, sure (and certainly Aurora Leigh is as thoroughly in dialogue with Comte as anything by George Eliot). But the 'Christian virtues of common sense'? Arguably there is something commonsensical about Christianity, which might explain why it has caught on so ubiquitously. Yet my mind rejects the notion as a profound misunderstanding of what Christianity is about: the New Testament in particular is almost the Platonic form of anti-common-sense. It is a text that says: everything you know is wrong; everything you take for granted is upsidedown; the meek shall inherit the earth; the last shall be first; the worst of crimes isn't assassinating an emperor but killing a nobody, itinerant Carpenter. It says: the world appears to be one way to our common senses; it is actually quite other. It's perverse, as Zizek notes. That's the very ground of its appeal.

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