19 JANUARY 2010 – Today is the anniversary of the birth, in 1798, of Auguste Comte. Comte had little use for journalists – ironic, since it was a class of British “higher” journalists, led by Lewes, Morley and Harrison, who elevated the odd and nearly-unreadable French philosopher to everlasting prominence. And he is still in the news today.
James W. Ceaser, in the Weekly Standard, finds Barack Obama is the unlikely “savior” of Comte’s “Religion of Humanity”:
“The 2008 campaign was an event that unfolded on an entirely different plane from ordinary politics. It signaled the emergence on a worldwide scale of the ‘Religion of Humanity,’ for which Obama became the symbol. What Americans have discovered is that being the representative of this transpolitical movement does not fit easily, if it fits at all, with serving as president of the United States…”
The combination of confidence in science and a religious-like enthusiasm was the hallmark of the Obama campaign, just as it is the most salient characteristic of the contemporary progressive impulse. Confidence in experts and the pledge to ‘restore science to its rightful place’ went hand in hand with chants of ‘Yes we can’ and with celebrations of the gift of charismatic leadership.
What was more far-fetched was Comte’s plan to establish an organized sect with churches, clergy, and calendar of Positivist saints. His movement in fact never reached much beyond the intellectual elites. But even here Comte’s thought may be less naïve than it first appears, as he envisaged an initial period of syncretism in which existing Christian sects would adopt the fundamental premises of the new religion without officially becoming part of it. What better describes the theology of many contemporary liberal churches whose full energy in 2008 went into proselytizing for Obama?
Comte’s “religion” was his undoing, at least in the minds of those who had first supported him so eagerly, especially John Morley, an early editor of the Fortnightly. Advocating an intellectual primacy of place for science was one thing, but building a cult around his personal obsessions was something else. Besides, many mainstream Christian “sects” would find their own means of achieving irrelevance without Comte, his religion, his peculiar calendar, and his veneration of his dream-girl, Clothilde de Vaux.
How far the parallel between Obama and Comte goes remains to be seen. Comte is now nearly forgotten. Many of the ideas he championed still survive and, in some forms, even flourish. Others now seem just trivial.
The answer may be more clear when Comte turns 214. And 2012, of course, is an American election year.