JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter XII.
Positivism and Literature.

AUGUSTE COMTE is the founder of Positivism. He thought that we had arrived at a period when men's minds were so agitated that they required a resting-place, and therefore a doctrine adequate to bind them in unison and harmony. He saw the inconsistencies we have pointed out in Protestantism, and found there no refuge for the troubled mind. The Catholic Church he stopped longer at, and recognized the noble work it did in the past; but considered it insufficient for the intellectual classes. The demands of its faith were, in his opinion, too trying upon reason. He therefore established a religious system to meet the moral anarchy, and a philosophical system to meet the intellectual anarchy, into which society in his view had fallen. The religion he proposed was the worship of humanity; the philosophy, Positivism. Is the remedy adequate to the evil?

The worship of humanity is not a new thing. Ever since the coming of the Redeemer, humanity, regenerated and deified in His Divine Person, has been the object of Christian worship. But Comte would do away with the supernatural, and consider humanity by itself as "the continuous whole of convergent beings."{1} Now humanity cannot give more than it has. Humanity is only society; and according to Comte's own statement, society is out of joint, and suffers from intellectual and moral anarchy. This is what society is equal to. It has never, in any stage of its existence, been able to regenerate itself. It has always required extraneous assistance. It bears in its womb the seeds of corruption, dissolution, and distraction, rather than the germs of its own regeneration. When, in pre-historic times, the whole world becomes corrupt, the Supreme Being destroys it, saving only one family with which to repeople it. When, again, it merges into idolatry, it does not rise from the shadows of death in which it finds itself; the Redeemer comes, and teaches a purifying and supernatural doctrine, and raises man into that higher plane of life that has become the basis of our modern civilization. These illustrations are for the Christian reader, not for the Positivist. For him we are content to lay statement against statement, for he proves not, and we are in possession.

M. Comte states that there is no absolute truth, and therefore no God; that the idea of God is a metaphysical hypothesis, and, like every hypothesis, a fiction of the mind, though good for a time, inasmuch as it led to the system of rationalism that does away with it, being able to work better without it. He arrives at this conclusion by an hypothesis -- a fiction of the mind also -- in which he states that the progress of religion has been, first fetichism, then polytheism, afterwards monotheism, and finally the present religion, of which he is high-priest, the worship of humanity.{2} Now, reason conceives this order to be impossible; for as right is before wrong, or health prior to sickness, so must truth have been before error. Therefore fetichism or polytheism could not have been previous to the true religion, whether it be the humanity-worship of Comte, or monotheism, as we hold it. Nor does the history of religion point to this order of development. -- We turn over the pages of the sacred Scriptures, and we everywhere meet with one living God -- existing from the beginning "the ancient of days;{3} whose "years are unto generation and generation."{4} We consult the Vedas of India, and we read of a supreme deity, Indra -- "him whom harvests do not age, nor moons; Indra, whose days do not wither." In the poetry of Greece there is also greater than all others "the great Zeus in heaven, who watches over all things and rules."{5} In the poetry of the Latins we meet with the same distinction. They also have their Jupiter -- their father Zeus -- who rules and overawes the affairs of both gods and men.{6}

Whichever way.we look, we find an acknowledgment of one Supreme Deity, whether it be to the dusky child of the West, to whom He is known as the Great Spirit, or to the son of the Celestial Empire, in whose philosophy, as in that of Lao-Tsze, we read of Tao, the primordial reason, "a being immense, silent, immutable, but always active; who is the creator of all things -- 'the mother of the world.' "{7} And the earlier the document, the more clearly is the existence of one Supreme Being asserted. Thus, in the most ancient code of rites in China -- I-li -- we read: "In time of calamity we offer the supreme sacrifice to Shang-ti;" and the commentator adds: "All things draw their substance from heaven; they receive their existence and particular form from Shang-ti."{8} Monotheism is prior to polytheism or fetichism, as the thing symbolized exists before the symbol.

Error is invariably based upon truth, and its only effective refutation is to strip the truth of its false covering, and show it up as it really is. This deification of humanity in the sacred person of the Redeemer we have seen to be a fact. But inasmuch as the Positivist believes not in the supernatural, this is not the fact he has in view. It is another, also due to Christianity. Only since its introduction can it be rightly said of man, "The truth will make you free." Christianity taught true liberty. It abolished slavery, placed all men upon an equal footing, and gave the individual, for the first time in the world's history, his true place in society. In Pagan times he was not his own master; he was a child of the State, devoted to the State, living for the State, claimed by the State, absorbed in the State. Christianity inspired him with a sense of his dignity, and taught him that there was something higher than the State to live for. In this feeling he has grown up and waxed strong, and it is a misapprehension of this feeling and its true cause that dictates the religion of Comte, and leads another philosopher of atheism to say: "The historical progress of religion consists in this, that what was regarded by an earlier religion as objective, is now regarded as subjective; what was formerly worshipped and contemplated as God, is now perceived to be something human."{9} But to exaggerate humanity as a whole is to belittle the individual, deprive him again of his personal rights, and absorb him into the masses. Indeed, the Positivist says that the individual man has no rights, no free will, that he is a creature of law, and that he imagines himself free, because of his ignorance of the complex laws of sociology.

In the philosophy of Positivism, the only legitimate aim of man is industry, the industry that benefits humanity. In this is to consist the sum of his happiness; in this is his whole being absorbed. The Positivist lays stress upon this theory of disinterestedness as an improvement upon what he calls the selfish doctrine of a future reward promulgated by the gospel. This is a sophism. It ignores the fundamental principle of Christianity, which is the principle of love. And love is unselfish. The reward that follows the fulfilment of the law of love is a necessity of the end of our creation, and due solely to the goodness of the Creator. He might have created us to fulfil a temporary purpose in life, such as the horse and the dog fulfil -- and this is the theory of the Positivist; but since, in His infinite love, He has, in creating us man, bestowed upon us an immortal soul, with infinite yearnings, that are never satisfied until they find rest in their Creator, we ought to be doubly thankful, and bless him for it the more.

The Positivist says, with Herbert Spencer and Sir William Hamilton, that as we cannot have absolute and infinite notions, we cannot have notions of the absolute and infinite. But if we had no notions of absolute and infinite being, how could we think it as such, how have words to express it, how use these words so accurately in all our reasonings? Evidently, then, we have such notions, and our knowledge is more than relative.

But the spirit that actuates the Positivists is the same that inspired the Encyclopaedists of the eighteenth century. It is a matter of pride to them to think that they are continuing and perfecting the work of D'Alembert and Diderot They are children of the same spirit of rationalism. They might accumulate scientific facts and develop scientific theories; but in their hands the higher species of literature would be cramped and considered a thing of silly amusement "Such a mere mathematical people," says Schlegel, "with minds thus sharpened and pointed by mathematical discipline, would and could never possess a rich and various intellectual existence, nor even probably ever attain to a living science, or a true science of life."{10} The influence of a people so narrowed in their mental training is calculated rather to blight than foster poetic genius; and when a rationalist wishes to touch humanity, he must become a child of faith -- a believer in tradition and in the supernatural -- even as humanity is. The immediate effect of such doctrines is to ignore the position and importance of the human soul, to belittle personality by merging persons into things, and to recognize in genius and virtue but a combination of external circumstances with internal temperament.

Not in Positivism, then, do we find a bond of reconciliation, in which all the elements of society may become a unit It is contradictory in its philosophy, absurd in its religion, and in its tendency destructive of the higher literary spirit. How is it with Evolutionism?

{1} Cours de Politique Positive, tome i., p. 30.

{2} Cette loi consiste en ce que chacune de nos conceptions principales, chaque branche de nos connaissances, passe successivement par trois états théoriques différents: l'état théologique, ou fictif; l'état métaphysique, ou abstrait; l'état scientifique, ou positif. Philosophie Positive, tome i. leçon 1. p. 14.

{3} Dan. vii. 9. Ps. ci. 25.

{4} Nà yám járanti s'arádah ná ma'sah ná dyâ'vab I'ndram s'àkars àyanti. Rig Veda, vi. 24, 7.

{5} esti megas en ouranô / Zeus, hos hephora panta, kai kratunei. -- SOPHOCLES, Electra, 174, 175.

{6} O qui res hominumque Deûmque AEternis regis imperiis, et fulmine terres." Vergil: AEneid. I.

{7} M. Abel-Remusat, Mélanges Asiatiques.

{8} I-li, I. xxi, fo 16 Ro, and 17 vo, 1-5. For the full text of this remarkable passage, which has only been recently brought to light by Mgr. de Harlez, in his refutation of M. Reville's work, La Religion en Chine, see La Revue Generale, Bruxelles, Avril 1889. See also Religion des premiers Chinois, by Mgr. de Harlez.

{9} Feuerbach, Das Wesen der Religion, §§ 2, 8, 10. Werke, pp. 411, et seq.

{10} Philosophy of History, p. 238.

<< ======= >>