Their Way

Jose Harris

  • The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain by Thomas Dixon
    British Academy, 420 pp, £60.00, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 726426 3

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.

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