Henri de Saint-Simon: The Great Synthesist
by Caspar Hewett
Henri de Saint-Simon [1760 – 1825] was one of the founding fathers of Christian socialism, and is probably the first thinker to try to bring together physics, physiology, psychology, history, politics and economics in the study of humanity and society. He came up with various versions of the history of progress in the course of his life’s work, which were rarely clear or consistent. However, the fact that he kept trying to grapple with such an account as different elements came to influence him and dominate his thoughts, are testament to his active, elastic intellectual nature.
His first work, Letters from an Inhabitant of Geneva to His Contemporaries, published in 1803, defends Enlightenment ideals and expresses the idea that certainty in morality and politics would emerge from the application of the scientific method to the social order. The letters are addressed in turn to three different classes of humanity:
The first … marches under the banner of the progress of the human mind. It is composed of scientists, artists and all those who hold liberal ideas. On the banner of the second is written ‘No innovation!’ All proprietors who do not belong in the first category are part of the second. The third class, which rallied round the slogan of ‘Equality’ is made up of the rest of the people.
Even in this early work, the seeds of Saint-Simon’s later ideas can be seen clearly. He argued that the most enlightened people, those “qualified by their superior talents,” should form a new ruling elite. Thus he would place “spiritual power in the hands of the scientists” (in place of the clergy), “temporal power in those of the property owners” (in place of the nobility) and the “power to nominate those called upon to carry out the functions of the great leaders of mankind in the hands of everyone.” This division of power would capitalise on the abilities and different perspectives of these different groups, ensuring that things ran smoothly. He also made a case for the property-owning classes to subsidise scientific advance, arguing that only by doing so could the new elite hope to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed seen in the French Revolution.
Saint-Simon’s conception of government as laid out in the Letters is very much a view of government as administration. This a society controlled by central planning of a small elite. It is not an argument for democracy, but rather for a new hierarchy based on the merit of the individuals who would hold the power. This failure to buy into the Enlightenment ideal of equality was influenced by a deep distrust of the judgement of the masses on the part of Saint-Simon, a prejudice he was to carry with him throughout his work.
Saint-Simon expressed for the first time in the Letters his desire to establish a new religion, a theme he was to return to many times and one that was to be echoed by Comte some time later. This new religion would be devoted to Newton and, because of its basis in rationality, would ensure social stability in the future. He even went so far as to claim that God had commanded him to do so! A central tenet of this new religion would be the requirement that everyone should work. Like d’Alembert, who he claimed (probably falsely) had been his one time mentor, Saint-Simon thought that those who did not help humanity were “useless” and that every individual could and should play a productive part in society.
Unfortunately for Saint-Simon the Letters was not a great success and he was in deep financial trouble by 1805. Luckily for him a wealthy former servant was willing to support him, and he was able to carry on with his work. He set out with his usual gusto to win financial support for his work from other sources. Thus we see Saint-Simon courting various different groups over the next few years.
His next work, Introduction to the Scientific Studies of the Nineteenth Century (1807), contains another attempt to tackle the history of progress of the human mind. Saint-Simon highly respected Condorcet’s Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, which he described as “one of the most beautiful productions of the human mind.” However he was also keen to show that his own understanding of human intellectual progress was superior to Condorcet’s, criticising Condorcet’s concept of human perfectibility and arguing that Condorcet’s was too subjective, primarily because of his involvement in politics.
In contrast to the Encyclopaedists, Saint-Simon had a deep respect for (and to some extent romanticised) the Middle Ages, believing that the period was not simply barbarous, as Condorcet had claimed, but had actually laid the foundations for the scientific revolution. Thus he censured the Encyclopaedists for trying to scrap mediaeval thought and for their emphasis on criticism. He called for a more constructive approach and exhorted scholars to write a new encyclopaedia. Praising Descartes for recognising the division of science into the physics of organic and inorganic matter, he echoed Descartes’ mechanical philosophy, the “clockwork model,” likening a human being to a watch and the Universe to a clock. He was convinced that the law of gravity held all of the answers to the Universe and that it would eventually replace God as the “sole cause of all physical and moral phenomena,” describing his materialist approach as “physicism.”
Saint-Simon was not the only thinker to overplay the importance of gravity - by the eighteenth century many people believed it to be the single cause of all phenomena. It is only later that the other fundamental forces in nature were discovered, and thus it is not surprising that it was thought to be the unifying principle that would run through all the sciences. However, Saint-Simon went much further than many other thinkers in believing that it would also eventually provide the basis for the scientifically derived moral absolutes of the future. However, this view changed over time as Saint-Simon became familiar with other areas of thought, at different times promoting physiology, economics and politics as the most important factors in the social sciences.
Again revealing his anti-democratic tendencies, and in stark contrast to the philosophes and the Idéologues, Saint-Simon argued in the Introduction to the Scientific Studies of the Nineteenth Century that religion should be used as a political tool and that, rather than educating the masses in his physicism, they should be encouraged to continue to believe in God. This, he felt, was the only way to ensure social stability. Like many other writers and thinkers of this period Saint-Simon was fearful of a repeat of the horrors of the Revolution. Thus the educated elite (who would run the rational society of the future) would keep their adoption of physicism a secret, pretending in public to believe in the old religion. Over the next few years Saint-Simon produced a number of works which reiterated many of the themes in the Introduction. In Letters to the Bureau des Longitudes (1808), he attempted to appeal to French nationalism, talking up the superiority of the French philosophers over their British counterparts. He focused on Descartes, who he proclaimed as the founder of modern positive thought and argued that his positive system would be the nineteenth century equivalent of the Encyclopédie. In his next three works, Encyclopaedia Project (1809), New Encyclopaedia and Outline of a New Encyclopaedia (1810), he again asserted the need for a new encyclopaedia. He commended the Encyclopaedists for destroying the “superstitious doctrine.” The social, political and religious institutions of the preceding era had no basis in rationality and the Encyclopaedists’ critique had been necessary in order to move forwards, preparing the way for the inevitable revolution that followed. However, the time had now come to produce a new encyclopaedia based on the positive system, incorporating the latest knowledge and thought. In History of Man, also published in 1810, he had another bash at tracing the history of progress, revealing much about his own ego in the process, as he was quite sure that his own role in the development of human thought was of central importance.
The works of this period are rather confused, bitty and repetitive. The clarity of this thoughts are often obscured by attempts to court favour with different groups, at times flattering Napoleon and appealing to French nationalism, at others by his urge to promote a moderate position, condemning royalists, republicans and the Encyclopaedists. They are also coloured by the same concern that so bothered the Idéologues at this time – the need to legitimise the Revolution while also condemning its excesses, for the Revolution was a forerunner to his own positive system and both were important elements of progress as he conceived it. His ongoing concern with social stability, religion and morality (in particular the duty to work) also reappear in these works. For example in Encyclopaedia Project he states that the positive doctrine would be a religion as it would link all knowledge through the scientific method, an idea later echoed in Auguste Comte’s work.
His next publication, Essay on the Science of Man, is one of his best known works. Published in 1813, it shows a distinct change in focus from the physical to the social sciences. In this work Saint-Simon shows more of an interest in moral and political ideas and shifts his emphasis from physics to physiology, for which the modern reader can read ‘biology’ since there was no distinction drawn between physiology and biology at this time. However, despite this recognition of the importance of physiology in making the science of man ‘positive’ he was still keen to reduce biology to physics thanks to his exaggerated notion of the universal application of the law of gravity. He also included for the first time psychology, history and prediction of the future as essential components of the science of man.
In the Essay on the Science of Man Saint-Simon laid out for the first time his ‘law of three stages’, a descriptive account of the evolution of the sciences. In the first stage there are only a limited number of observed phenomena on which to build theory. In the second, ‘half positive,’ stage, more facts are known and understood. Ultimately the science becomes wholly positive, like physics. Thus when psychology and physiology reached the positive stage, the science of man would become the “principal object of education.” At this point a scientific, rational understanding of politics would be the norm. This would ensure that everyone would be aiming to reorganise society for the good of all, without any need for the bloodshed and destruction that had characterised the French Revolution. In a telling passage Saint-Simon makes it clear that the role of the philosopher is to be much more than a thinker:
The philosopher … is not just an observer, he is an actor; he is an actor of the highest kind in a moral world because it is his opinion of what the world must become that regulates society.
Saint-Simon was somewhat disappointed by the lack of interest shown in the Essay on the Science of Man by physiologists and quickly set about trying to convince them of its importance, producing a second instalment, containing the Work on the Universal Law of Gravity. In this rather muddled work he returned to his earlier contention that the science of man had to be built on the foundations of the principle of gravitation, not physiology alone. Addressing the Work to Napoleon, he argued for reestablishment of the mediaeval separation between church and state, calling for the emperor to allow the sciences to take over many of the functions of religion and to bring his attacks on the church to a peaceful conclusion. However, Saint-Simon’s timing could not have been worse, as Napoleon at this point was rounding on the philosophers, the Idéologues in particular, blaming them for his political problems.
The Essay on the Science of Man may not have impressed the physiologists, nor won Napoleon’s support, but it was a success more generally, reaching a wide audience and consequently solving his financial problems. Thus he set about looking for a collaborator. In early 1814 he employed a brilliant young student called Augustin Thierry as his secretary. This was a very positive step for Saint-Simon as Thierry was a clear, organised thinker who was to greatly improve the clarity and precision of the Saint-Simon’s somewhat fragmentary thinking.
Saint-Simon became increasingly influenced by Jean-Baptiste Say, one of the Idéologues. Say’s writing highlighted the increasing importance of industry, reflecting the shift away from the centrality of agriculture that was taking place in Western Europe. Say used the term “industry” in a much more general way than we tend to today, referring to many types of productive work, including scientific endeavour, scholarly work and business. He emphasised the value of labour, pointing out, like the great political economist Adam Smith, that it was labour that generated wealth. Thus he maintained that it was not government but economics that was the dominant force in modern society. Say believed that social stability would be re-established through industrialisation. Since more and more people would play a productive part in economics there would be greater co-operation and improved social consensus. Thus political economy would be the true science of society.
Saint-Simon’s To all Englishmen and Frenchmen who are passionate about the public good (1815) shows clearly the influence of Say, echoing many of his ideas. In it, Saint-Simon suggested creating a Baconian Society which would play a key role in unifying Europe. This society would be grounded in the scientific method, using observation as its main tool in deciding how society should move forwards. It would provide a historical understanding of the march of progress over the last 400 years. Emphasising the importance of industry, Saint-Simon picked up on Say’s definition of industriel as including business, science and intellectual endeavour, defining society as the “mass and union of men devoted to useful works.”
In his usual astute manner Saint-Simon decided to capitalise on his new found enthusiasm for business and industry by producing a new journal called l’Industrie (Industry), which would be backed by industrialists, bankers and the like. l’Industrie began publication in 1816.
In May 1817, Saint-Simon set out in l’Industrie a declaration of principles which emphasised the need for freedom from government interference for producers and consumers in the new industrial society. The primary role of government, he argued, should be to facilitate the freedom to produce. This meant limiting the influence of the nobility, church and other non-productive members of society. Political writers would assume political leadership under this new system of organisation as they were the people best placed to improve the common lot. A clear connection was made between literary and scientific industry and that of commerce and manufacturing. In Letters from Henri Saint-Simon to an American in the same volume of l’Industrie, Saint-Simon made explicit his new found certainty that political economy would provide the foundation for a positive science of politics. Based on the notion of industry laid out in the declaration of principles, the “science of production” would generate the knowledge necessary to reorganise society rationally, securing a better social system for the future.
Thierry was clearly instrumental in helping Saint-Simon conceive of, and express, this new direction towards industrialism. However, Thierry was a democrat, unlike his mentor, and it seems that Saint-Simon’s authoritarian leanings and obscure ideas led him to quit as his secretary in 1817. Thierry went on to become a great historian, occasionally working with Saint-Simon, but never as closely as in his days as his full time collaborator.
Just after parting with Thierry, Saint-Simon met a remarkable young nineteen year old, Auguste Comte, who began working as his secretary. Eight years of fruitful collaboration ensued. It is clear that the influence of these two men on each other went both ways, for although Comte was much younger man and less experienced than Saint-Simon, he had plenty of ideas of his own and a headstrong character, not afraid to argue with his mentor.
The world view of these two thinkers was already running in parallel before they met, making Comte an ideal collaborator for Saint-Simon. Both men thought Christianity redundant and that the sciences held the key to progress. They shared a belief in the importance of education and political writing in forming public opinion and were passionate about the ideals of individual freedom and the need for representative government. Finally, they both believed in the need to understand history in order to inform the present and future and that philosophy, political economy and a new secular morality would play important parts in moving society forwards. What we see as Comte began working with Saint-Simon is that the great synthesist showed his young protégé how all these ideas could come together under a single system of thought. Saint-Simon demonstrated to Comte the intimate link between the existing intellectual system, which was well past its sell-by date, and the outdated, outmoded, decadent political system. What Comte brought to the table was the clarity of writing and thought that had been lacking in Saint-Simon’s work up that time (with the exception of the work done with Thierry).
Soon after meeting Saint-Simon and Comte began working on the third volume of l’Industrie, most of which was written by Comte, although it was published in Saint-Simon’s name. This volume showed a return to the preoccupation with the power of the church evident in Saint-Simon’s earlier work, praising the Encyclopédie for its attack on religious belief and reiterating the call for a new encyclopaedia based on ‘positive’ ideas. Comte took on board Saint-Simon’s previous writing and generated a new synthesis of his ideas marked by a clarity and precision absent from the earlier work. In the opening article they stated boldly :
Today, for the first time since the existence of societies it is a question of organising a totally new system; of replacing the celestial with the terrestrial, the vague by the positive, and the poetic by the real.
Contending that theory had to come before practice, they argued that a detailed plan, or ‘blueprint,’ of a new social system would be needed before radical social reorganisation would be possible. This was tempered with the recognition that pure rationalism and empiricism were insufficient – experience would also play its part in conceiving of a new type of society.
Volumes 3 and 4 of l’Industrie were highly critical of the specialisation of scientists. Maintaining that a general philosophy would be more likely to improve society, Comte and Saint-Simon denounced the scientific community for limiting its scope. Only by bringing scientists and industrialists together working for the same goal – the “production of useful things” – would real progress be made, serving everybody’s needs. They also highlighted what they saw as a serious problem with the political economists, claiming that they were oblivious to inequality of wealth, focusing only on how increased production could increase the wealth of the owners of industry. What they wanted to see was a reformulated political economy based on “more vast, more daring, and more general views.” Like Jean-Baptiste Say, they argued that industrialists should concentrate on producing cheap necessities to improve the lot of the common people.
Saint-Simon and Comte both believed in progress and argued for a move from the old hierarchical system to the freedom of a positive system characterised by a representative government. However, they both lacked faith in the common people and so aimed to shape the minds of the masses before giving them a real say. What seems to be missing in some of their arguments is a failure to grasp the conflictual nature of a liberal or democratic society – a battle of ideas is central to its structure. Rather they were searching for a single philosophical system, arguing that a philosophical revolution had to come first – people’s opinions had to be formed in Saint-Simon and Comte’s image before the transformation of society could begin.
The new volumes of l’Industrie generated a negative reaction in many of its readers and Saint-Simon had his financial backing withdrawn. Broke again, he could not afford to keep Comte on as his secretary. However, the two men had developed a mutual affection and had found in each other too many things in common to allow finances to stand in the way of them continuing to work together. That said, some tensions were apparent in their relationship by this time, in particular over tactics. They broadly agreed on direction but Saint-Simon was characteristically concerned with courting favour with the rich and powerful, while the young Comte was much more idealistic and uncompromising. The question of whether to concentrate on theory or practice also haunted their working relationship. Comte felt strongly that theory had to come first, while Saint-Simon wanted to prioritise practical issues.
At the end of 1818 Saint-Simon and Comte began working on a new journal, Le Politique (Politics), which focused on current affairs and was notably less philosophical than l’Industrie, aiming at a wider audience. Saint-Simon particularly wanted to regain the support of the industrialists. Ever the pragmatist, he flattered industrialists, describing them as the most moral members of society because they followed the teachings of Jesus Christ. This was a notable retreat from his previous heavy criticism of religion and is a clear precursor to his subsequent return to Christianity – something that was also to cause tensions between him and his young collaborator. Unfortunately for Saint-Simon and his collaborators Le Politique was to have a short lifespan thanks to a new law introduced in 1819 that required “caution money” to be paid to the Treasury as a deposit against possible fines incurred. Saint-Simon could not raise the money required and was forced to close his new journal.
In 1819 Saint-Simon launched yet another journal, l’Organisateur, on which he, Thierry and Comte all worked. Its grand aim, in typical Saint-Simon style, was to turn society completely on its head through a critique of the current administration, an understanding of the past and a plan for the future based on that new understanding. Published between November 1819 and February 1820, l’Organisateur was a collection of fourteen letters to the people of France, all attributed to Saint-Simon (although it is clear he did not write them all.)
The opening letter in l’Organisateur was a scathing indictment of the current holders of power – the clergy, wealthy owners of industry, aristocracy, government and civil service, whom Saint-Simon characterised as useless idlers.He went on to claim that if they were all to die it would not harm France at all, while if the leading scientists, artists and skilled workers – the real producers of wealth – were to die then the country would truly suffer He proposed a government in which a Chamber of Invention consisting primarily of practical scientists but also a few artists, a Chamber of Review which would consist of theoretical scientists and a Chamber of Execution which would be made up of representatives of various industries. The first two chambers would be responsible for moral and spiritual matters, while the Chamber of Execution would hold the temporal (political and governmental) power. This proposed government of three separate elites was later to become the template for Comte’s later models of future society.
The year 1820 was to be tumultuous one for Saint-Simon. In February Charles Ferdinand, duc de Berry, the youngest son of the king’s brother Charles (who was later to become Charles X), was murdered when leaving the opera house in Paris. Saint-Simon found himself accused of moral collusion in the assassination thanks to his first article in l’Organisateur in which the duke had been named as one of the aristocrats that France would not miss were they dead. A trial followed and Saint-Simon emerged victorious, but it was the end of l’Organisateur and Saint-Simon was understandably shaken up by the experience.
Around this time Comte was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of credit he was getting for his work, and as a consequence there was friction developing in his relationship with Saint-Simon. Nevertheless they continued to work together, producing three volumes of a new journal, Du Système Industriel (On the Industrial System) between 1820 and 1822. However, there was a clear divergence between the thought of Saint-Simon and his young protégé emerging. Comte was solidifying his idea of the law of three stages: theological, metaphysical and positive, through which the sciences, politics and history passed. Saint-Simon on the other hand, who had described his own law of three stages in Essay on the Science of Man, appeared to have dropped the idea, implying at one point in Du Système Industriel that astronomy and chemistry had jumped directly from the conjectural to the positive stage, and at another claiming that politics had moved directly from a theological to positive stage.
The views of the two men were also deviating on the place lawyers had in the scheme of things. Comte was developing a variation of one of Saint-Simon’s previous accounts of the Revolution (although in a predictably more coherent form) in which the lawyers and the philosophes (the metaphysicians in his new description) were characterised as the representatives of the transitional (metaphysical) stage of society in the temporal and spiritual realms. He also laid the ultimate blame for the failure of the Revolution on the industrial class, who should have formed the new political system themselves rather than calling on the lawyers and philosophes to do so. Saint-Simon, in contrast, was arguing that the Revolution was directed against the lawyers as well as the nobility and church, viewing them as very much a part of the old order. He was also anxious to present the industriels in the best possible light so as to keep them on side.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Saint-Simon was beginning to incorporate Christianity back into his description of a future society, returning to the position he had held before he began working with Comte. Then he had felt that maintaining or even re-establishing respect for the church would help to stabilise society. Taking this position was no doubt at least in part thanks to the pressures of the time – an intense Catholic revival was taking place in France and Saint-Simon had always been a pragmatist. Even Comte had conceded that the wanton attacks on religion of the previous century had been uncalled for. However, Comte simply did not believe in God – he hadn’t since his schooldays. Thus, although he had a great respect for the founders of Christianity, he had no time for the ideas and dogma of the Catholic Church and was clearly not comfortable with Saint-Simon’s new position.
Financial problems continued to trouble Saint-Simon, so much so that in March 1823, utterly depressed and at his wits’ end, he made a clumsy attempt to commit suicide, shooting himself in the head but succeeding only in putting out an eye. Comte was immediately at his mentor’s bedside, watching him all night, so it is clear that the two men were still quite close at this point. Saint-Simon, believing he had reached the end of the road, even offered to talk through the problems Comte was having with his writing while they still had time.
That year Saint-Simon launched another new journal, Le Catéchisme des Industriels (Catechism of the Industrialists). The first two issues of Catéchisme focused on practical matters relevant to the owners of industry who Saint-Simon was still keen to court. He even did a U-turn on his own thoughts on the separation of spiritual and temporal powers, suggesting that the scientists would have to work for the producers. Saint-Simon wanted to replace liberalism with “industrialism” and called on the producers and co. to describe themselves as “industrialists” to distinguish themselves from liberals. This focus on practice as opposed to theory was a source of ongoing tension between Saint-Simon and Comte. However, it was Comte’s Prospectus des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (Prospectus on the scientific work needed to reorganise society), that was to prove the straw that broke the camel’s back for Saint-Simon and Comte’s relationship. The Prospectus was originally intended for publication in Du Système Industriel, but in the event, although Comte started work on it as early as April 1821, it was still not ready for publication a year later and thus never made it into the journal. It was actually this work that the two men had discussed when they thought Saint-Simon was on his deathbed in 1823.
Saint-Simon decided to publish the Prospectus in the third issue of Catéchisme, despite the fact that sections Comte had promised on education and history were still missing. Comte was not happy, as the work was unfinished, but gave in under pressure. However, he was adamant that he be named as the author (unlike all of his previous work) and did not want it to carry the ‘Catéchisme’ title as he felt it was too closely associated with Saint-Simon. He also did not want Saint-Simon to write an introduction to the article. Comte felt that the Prospectus was his first major work and wanted it to launch his public career, helping to establish some independence from Saint-Simon. In the event, Comte foolishly and unfairly accused Saint-Simon of jealousy and of not wanting him to become known to the public.
Following the argument, Saint-Simon agreed to print the work as Système de Politique Positive, volume 1, part 1, bearing Comte’s name as principal author and with an introduction written by Comte himself. However he was heart broken by the behaviour and attitude of his young friend, and subesquently refused to have any more to do with him. Comte felt hard done by, imagining that his former mentor was wreaking some sort of unjustified revenge on him. That said, Comte must have felt guilty as he acted quite out of character, writing a foreword that was highly complimentary to Saint-Simon. However the damage was done and it was too late to heal the rift.
Saint-Simon, following their agreement to the letter, printing a hundred copies of part one of the Système (now entitled Plan for the scientific work required for society’s reorganisation) in April 1822. He then infuriated Comte by also publishing a thousand copies as the third volume of the Le Catéchisme, adding a highly critical and somewhat condescending introduction in which Saint-Simon referred to Comte as his student, pointing out what he considered some weaknesses with the work. Neither party forgave each other and they parted ways for good.
After the break with Comte, Saint-Simon got more and more involved in the Christian revival of the period, and seems to have begun to think of himself as some sort of saviour. It seems that both he and Comte were plagued with delusions of grandeur, that rather colours their later works. In his last book, Le Nouveau Christianisme (The New Christianity), published in April 1825, Saint-Simon argued that brotherly love, which was at the heart of Christian thought, should be the basis for the reorganisation of society. Claiming that he had a “divine mission” to re-establish the original spirit of Christianity, he proposed a moral code based on traditional religion.
There are two things that I think are most particularly interesting about Saint-Simon’s last work. The first is that the highly traditional ideas espoused in it are so far from where Saint-Simon was in his early work: His admiration for the Enlightenment and its rejection of the old in favour of the new had become so watered down by this point that it is unrecognisable. The second is that today Le Nouveau Christianisme is thought of as one of Saint-Simon’s most important works, while at the time it was largely ignored, most notably by his followers, who only picked up the religious revivalist elements of Saint-Simon’s thought later. Just weeks after the publication of Le Nouveau Christianisme, Saint-Simon died, on May 19, 1825. He was buried in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Notes written by Caspar J M Hewett for
Progress of the Human Mind: From Enlightenment to Postmodernism
A workshop held in September 2008
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