Home > Uncategorized > Auguste Comte: Permanent warfare as foundation of retrograde system, incompatible with modern civilization

Auguste Comte: Permanent warfare as foundation of retrograde system, incompatible with modern civilization

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

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Auguste Comte
From Positive Philosophy
Translated by Harriet Martineau

The whole nature of Napoleon Bonaparte was incompatible with political ability; with any conception of social progression; with the mere idea of an irrevocable extinction of the old theological and military system, outside of which he could conceive of nothing…

The continuous development of military activity was the foundation, necessary at any cost, of this disastrous domination. To set up for awhile a system thoroughly repugnant to social conditions, it was necessary to enlist and humor, by perpetual stimulation, all the general vices of mankind, and all the special imperfections of the national character; and above all, an excessive vanity, which, instead of being carefully regulated by wise opposition, was directly excited to something like madness, by means derived, like all the rest of the system, from the most discredited customs of the ancient monarchy. Nothing but active warfare could have intercepted the effect of ridicule which could not but be excited to attempts so ill-suited to the age as the restoration of a nobility and a priesthood. In no other way could France have been oppressed so long and so shamefully…The second lesson is of the necessity of active and permanent warfare as the foundation of a retrograde system, which in no other way have developed any temporary consistence; and this condemns as chimerical and disturbing a policy which depends on a policy incompatible with modern civilization as a whole. It is true, the revolutionary warfare was defended as the necessary means of propagating revolutionary benefits: but the result is a sufficient reply to the sophism. The propagation was of oppression and pillage…

This system, founded on war, fell by a natural consequence of the war, when the resistance had become popular and the attack despotic.

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Thus the time is come when we may congratulate ourselves on the final passing away of serious and durable warfare among the most advanced nations. In this case as in others, the dreams and aspirations which have multiplied in recent times are an expression of a real and serious need, – a prevision of the heart rather than of the head, of a happier state of things approaching…

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  1. Keith McLennan
    November 8, 2018 at 4:07 am

    A very interesting excerpt, on two scores. I had believed that it was only de Tocqueville who drew the analogy between the ancien and revolutionary regimes. This was a theme he announced in the famous Preface to “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” (1856):

    “The French made, in 1789, the greatest effort that has ever been made by any people to sever their history into two parts so to speak, and to tear open a gulf between their past and their future… I have always believed that they were less successful in this enterprise than has generally been believed abroad, or even supposed at home. I have always suspected that they retained most of the sentiments, habits, and ideas which the old regime had taught them, and by whose aid they achieved the revolution; and that, without intending it, they used its materials for the construction of their new society.”

    We see from your excerpt that Comte may have beaten de Tocqueville to the punch by some decades, since he wrote the texts collected as “Positive Philosophy” between 1830 and 1842. We also see Comte dismissing the entirety of Napoleon’s program, although he was more commonly seen in those days, especially in France, as the saviour of the Revolution and the chief promoter of its ideals. Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony, the Eroica, to Napoleon out of admiration for his democratic and anti-monarchical principles. Even after changing his mind about this and scratching out its dedication to Napoleon, he still told his publisher, “The title of the symphony is really ‘Bonaparte.'”

    The second score is that Comte could imagine that “we may congratulate ourselves on the final passing away of serious and durable warfare among the most advanced nations.” Despite all the evidence, it was a cherished delusion right up to 1914 that in the modern era European states would not fight against each other, but only “contre les barbares”.

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