To many observers, one of the surprising features of the rule of experts that prevailed during the pandemic was its reliance on fervent moral exhortation. Rather than coolly determining and communicating the facts of the situation, public-health officials and high-profile physicians denounced those who strayed from their hygienic injunctions as “literal murderers” and used fire-and-brimstone rhetoric to invoke the apocalyptic threat posed by the virus. In some accounts, this marked a turn away from an earlier depoliticizing agenda on the part of technocrats.
But a look at the history of political thought suggests that technocratic moralism isn’t such a new phenomenon. There is a long-established pattern of moral zealotry among those who wish to entrust society to scientific management. In fact, it was the most assiduous and original theorist of “trusting the science” who also coined the term “altruism.” That would be the 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte, one of the founding ideologues of technocracy. His influential body of work is a stark reminder that technocrats have never failed to embrace moralism in their projects of social transformation.
While Comte’s name isn’t especially well-known today, his global impact was immense. One illustration of how powerfully his ideas shaped the thinking of ruling elites over the century after his death is that to this day a slogan he originated—“order and progress”—remains emblazoned on the Brazilian flag. The aspiring technocrats who placed it there after the founding of modern Brazil were by no means alone in their devotion to Comte’s ideas, which shaped elite schemes for reform in many countries. Comte’s legacy also persists in language: He invented words like sociology and (as noted) altruism, the latter of which derives from his injunction to “live for others,” vivre pour autrui. He also exerted a great hold on many Victorian intellectuals, who did their best to propagate his thought in the Anglosphere, where much of his writing remains untranslated—hardly shocking, since, apart from a few luminous early essays, it is as tedious as it is voluminous.
Comte was born in 1798, which meant that he missed the paroxysms of Revolutionary Terror by a few years, but came of age in a time of instability: By the time he was 32, he had lived under six or so regimes, depending on how you count them. “Colorful” is too euphemistic a word to describe his life, which is rivaled only by Rousseau’s among French philosophers for its bizarreness and melodrama. Indeed, so wild was Comte, and so interwoven was his life with memorable characters, that Mary Pickering’s three-volume biography is almost a beach read.
We can only give a few highlights here. The son of traditionalist religious parents, Comte was sent to Paris to train at that temple of applied science, the École Polytechnique. He was expelled for misbehavior, however, and went on to marry a woman of no means or connections, who may or may not have been a prostitute. He experienced numerous manic episodes and severe depression, which induced him on at least one occasion to set things on fire and nearly to drown himself and his wife.
Nonetheless, Comte acquired a formidable intellectual reputation and carried on an extensive correspondence with the era’s great minds, although most of these friendships broke down due to his erratic conduct and incessant pleas for money. After more than a decade of loveless marriage, he fell for a younger woman, Clotilde de Vaux, who rebuffed his advances but developed a profound emotional connection with him before wasting away of tuberculosis. After her death, her sexual refusals of him went from a source of frustration to a reason for exaltation, and he developed a cult around Clotilde’s memory, which now stood for chastity and purity of sentiment. Such are just a few of the high (or low) points of Comte’s remarkable career.
Despite his ignominious stint at the Polytechnique, the young Comte, horrified by France’s unremitting political upheaval, had become fervently convinced of the socially beneficial potential of science. He latched on to the eccentric theorist and fallen aristocrat Henri de Saint-Simon, who sought to shore up the emerging industrial society he believed was struggling to come into its own. To this end, Saint-Simon aimed to establish a scientific elite, propagate a post-Christian religion, and harness the natural sciences to resolve social problems. This program provided the basis for many notions later elaborated more fully by Comte, but Saint-Simon’s personal eccentricities meant he had trouble getting his ideas in order. Eventually, master and disciple split acrimoniously.
After breaking with Saint-Simon, Comte began a decades-long project to unfold a system of thought that could integrate the sciences and furnish the keys to a “true social order.” He and his acolytes referred to his system, which he named Positivism, as at once “a philosophy, a religion, and a polity.” Among its central components were a new classification of knowledge; a hierarchical ordering of the scientific disciplines; a theory of the development of the human mind across history, accompanied by an account of the corresponding evolution of social forms; and a blueprint of the political, social, and economic system toward which history was pointing. The last of these had as its capstone a program of beliefs and rituals he called the “religion of humanity.”
The society Comte believed would arise at the end of humanity’s mental and social evolution was characterized by a division of labor between temporal power, which would reside in bankers and captains of industry, and “spiritual power,” vested in a scientific elite. The latter would direct not only education, but also public opinion, and would serve as the priests of the post-theological religion in which worship of humanity itself would replace the worship of a divinity. These priest-scientists would also admonish and correct the temporal leaders when they fell afoul of the dictates of science and morality. For Comte, science and morals constituted a single body of thought: The moral rules propagated by the elite drew their sanctity from their scientific origin, and science was respected because it could be shown to increase human welfare.
Members of Comte’s priesthood of scientists would not possess property, and would wield strong disciplinary powers, including public condemnation and exclusion from the Positivist religion. Since Comte conceived of this religion as coextensive with the polity, their position effectively entailed the power to ostracize. Comte’s logic was unrelenting: In the scientific-confessional state, it was ultimately for scientists to define the boundaries and terms of belonging in the moral community. (“Experts” who endorsed the use of social exclusion to enforce Covid mandates rediscovered this vocation.)
This was nobody’s idea of democracy, let alone Comte’s. He saw himself offering “sociocratic evolution” as an alternative to the “democratic revolution” that threatened to take over Europe. In his last decade of life, he was willing to back Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup, which overthrew the Second Republic, judging it necessary for keeping republican radicalism at bay—and hoping he could win the soon-to-be Emperor Napoleon III over to his program.
Despite his elitism, Comte believed that he was theorizing on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, and there is no doubt of his sincerity in this regard. Indeed, he had some big ideas about what the working class would get out of the Positivist system. In return for giving up the political power they could wield by dint of their “numbers,” they would receive security in a wide sense: a jobs guarantee, an income sufficient to support a family, free instruction from the scientific clerisy—these were some of the bedrocks of Comte’s social policy. All the average man had to do to bring about this utopia was to trust the science.
Because of the religion of humanity and the liturgy built up around it, as well as Comte’s open admiration for the medieval Catholic Church as a model of cosmopolitan spiritual power, Positivism received such nicknames as “Human Catholicism” from its admirers, while detractors described it as “Catholicism minus Christianity” or “Popery conducted upon atheistical principles.” Comtists presented their program as a fusion of the best aspects of Christianity—its intensity of moral feeling and capacity for creating community—with modern science. The possessors of spiritual power would grasp not only the workings of the physical world, but also what was good for the masses. In them would be reconciled love and truth.
Comte’s position on the ideological spectrum has always been contested. While his vision was deeply hierarchical, he was also a vigorous critic of laissez-faire, holding that the sufferings of the poor were due to their exploitation in an economy that had yet to be moralized and scientized. He didn’t apply the label socialist to himself, but he was so designated by many from the beginning, and he had a marked impact on socialist thinkers. Indeed, one question which reading Comte raises vividly is: Can there be a socialism of the right?
The French historian Élie Halevy argued roughly a century ago that socialism was inescapably torn between the impulse to emancipate and the impulse to organize. Comte and the Saint-Simonians exemplified the organizational impulse. Charles Maurras—the leader of Action Française, whose social vision informed the curiously technocratic Vichy regime—saw Comte as a sublime figure who had revealed that only a science of order allied to an authoritarian spiritual system could overcome the forces of anarchy. Maurras transmuted Comte’s integralism of scientific humanitarianism into his own royalist and Catholic integral nationalism.
In the Anglophone world, meanwhile, Comte’s influence passes through the corpus of a foundational figure of liberalism: John Stuart Mill, who corresponded with him and commented extensively on his work. Mill remained sympathetic to key parts of Comtism throughout his life, even after his youthful infatuation with Comte had passed. In particular, he drew from Comte’s philosophy of history, and he took inspiration from the idea of a humanistic religion that could provide a spiritual undergirding for utilitarian ethics, even if he found the specifics of the Comtean cultus risible.
But when it came to Comte’s “system of positive polity,” Mill was repulsed. Although a moralist himself, Mill couldn’t stomach the totalizing moralism that infused Comte’s proposals for scientifically reengineering society. Comte was preposterously “morality-intoxicated,” Mill remarked; he wrongly reduced “every question … to one of morality.” In Mill’s assessment, Comte hadn’t appreciated the limits to the application of scientific techniques to society. A scholar of French politics dubbed the Saint-Simonian movement in which Comte participated “technocracy with a religious aura.” Whatever else liberalism was for Mill (the debates about this are endless), one thing it had to avoid was congealing into a system of technocratic management imbued with religion. Comte’s reign of science was, in his words, a recipe for “spiritual despotism.”
The questions Comte raised about the way industrial societies should be organized and the political role of experts remain very much open two centuries later. To be sure, we can’t do without the counsel of scientists or regulatory oversight of health care, infrastructure, and many other domains. But when experts go beyond serving collectively determined ends and instead arrogate to themselves something akin to the “spiritual power” Comte advocated for them, they unconsciously channel this forgotten precursor. Today, we desperately need the vigilance of a democratic citizenry to check the scientists’ and administrators’ yearnings to rule as an overweening clerisy. As the usurpations of the pandemic revealed, the potential for drifting into Positivist technocracy overseen by a zealous priesthood of experts remains all too real.