was admitted to the École Polytechnique. His youth was marked by a constant willingness to rebel against merely official authority; to genuine excellence, whether moral or intellectual, he was always ready to pay unbounded deference. That strenuous application which was one of his most remarkable gifts in manhood showed itself in his youth, and his application was backed or inspired by superior intelligence and aptness. After he had been two years at the École Polytechnique he took a foremost part in a mutinous demonstration against one of the masters; the school was broken up, and Comte like the other scholars was sent home. To the great dissatisfaction of his parents, he resolved to return to Paris (1816), and to earn his living there by giving lessons in mathematics. Benjamin Franklin was the youth’s idol at this moment. “I seek to imitate the modern Socrates,” he wrote to a school friend, “not in talents, but in way of living. You know that at five-and-twenty he formed the design of becoming perfectly wise and that he fulfilled his design. I have dared to undertake the same thing, though I am not yet twenty.” Though Comte’s character and aims were as far removed as possible from Franklin’s type, neither Franklin nor any man that ever lived could surpass him in the heroic tenacity with which, in the face of a thousand obstacles, he pursued his own ideal of a vocation.
For a moment circumstances led him to think of seeking a career in America, but a friend who preceded him thither warned him of the purely practical spirit that prevailed in the new country. “If Lagrange were to come to the United States, he could only earn his livelihood by turning land surveyor.” So Comte remained in Paris, living as he best could on something less than £80 a year, and hoping, when he took the trouble to break his meditations upon greater things by hopes about himself, that he might by and by obtain an appointment as mathematical master in a school. A friend procured him a situation as tutor in the house of Casimir Périer. The salary was good, but the duties were too miscellaneous, and what was still worse, there was an end of the delicious liberty of the garret. After a short experience of three weeks Comte returned to neediness and contentment. He was not altogether without the young man’s appetite for pleasure; yet when he was only nineteen we find him wondering, amid the gaieties of the carnival of 1817, how a gavotte or a minuet could make people forget that thirty thousand human beings around them had barely a morsel to eat.
Towards 1818 Comte became associated as friend and disciple with Saint-Simon, who was destined to exercise a very decisive influence upon the turn of his speculation. In after years he so far forgot himself as to write of Saint-Simon as a depraved quack, and to deplore his connexion with him as purely mischievous. While the connexion lasted he thought very differently. Saint-Simon is described as the most estimable and lovable of men, and the most delightful in his relations; he is the worthiest of philosophers. Even at the very moment when Comte was congratulating himself on having thrown off the yoke, he honestly admits that Saint-Simon’s influence has been of powerful service in his philosophic education. “I certainly,” he writes to his most intimate friend, “am under great personal obligations to Saint-Simon; that is to say, he helped in a powerful degree to launch me in the philosophical direction that I have now definitely marked out for myself, and that I shall follow without looking back for the rest of my life.” Even if there were no such unmistakable expressions as these, the most cursory glance into Saint-Simon’s writings is enough to reveal the thread of connexion between the ingenious visionary and the systematic thinker. We see the debt, and we also see that when it is stated at the highest possible, nothing has really been taken either from Comte’s claims as a powerful original thinker, or from his immeasurable pre-eminence over Saint-Simon in intellectual grasp and vigour and coherence. As high a degree of originality may be shown in transformation as in invention, as Molière and Shakespeare have proved in the region of dramatic art. In philosophy the conditions are not different. Il faut prendre son bien où on le trouve.
It is no detriment to Comte’s fame that some of the ideas which he recombined and incorporated in a great philosophic structure had their origin in ideas that were produced almost at random in the incessant fermentation of Saint-Simon’s brain. Comte is in no true sense a follower of Saint-Simon, but it was undoubtedly Saint-Simon who launched him, to take Comte’s own word, by suggesting the two starting-points of what grew into the Comtist system—first, that political phenomena are as capable of being grouped under laws as other phenomena; and second, that the true destination of philosophy must be social, and the true object of the thinker must be the reorganization of the moral, religious and political systems. We can readily see what an impulse these far-reaching conceptions would give to Comte’s meditations. There were conceptions of less importance than these, in which it is impossible not to feel that it was Saint-Simon’s wrong or imperfect idea that put his young admirer on the track to a right and perfected idea. The subject is not worthy of further discussion. That Comte would have performed some great intellectual achievement, if Saint-Simon had never been born, is certain. It is hardly less certain that the great achievement which he did actually perform was originally set in motion by Saint-Simon’s conversation, though it was afterwards directly filiated with the fertile speculations of A. R. J. Turgot and Condorcet. Comte thought almost as meanly of Plato as he did of Saint-Simon, and he considered Aristotle the prince of all true thinkers; yet their vital difference about Ideas did not prevent Aristotle from calling Plato master.
After six years the differences between the old and the young philosopher grew too marked for friendship. Comte began to fret under Saint-Simon’s pretensions to be his director. Saint-Simon, on the other hand, perhaps began touncomfortably conscious of the superiority of his disciple. The occasion of the breach between them (1824) was an attempt on Saint-Simon’s part to print a production of Comte’s as if it were in some sort connected with Saint-Simon’s schemes of social reorganization. Not only was the breach not repaired, but long afterwards Comte, as we have said, with painful ungraciousness took to calling the encourager of his youth by very hard names.
In 1825 Comte married a Mdlle Caroline Massin. His marriage was one of those of which “magnanimity owes no account to prudence,” and it did not turn out prosperously. His family were strongly Catholic and royalist, andMarriage. they were outraged by his refusal to have the marriage performed other than civilly. They consented, however, to receive his wife, and the pair went on a visit to Montpellier. Madame Comte conceived a dislike to the circle she found there, and this was the too early beginning of disputes which lasted for the remainder of their union. In the year of his marriage we find Comte writing to the most intimate of his correspondents:—“I have nothing left but to concentrate my whole moral existence in my intellectual work, a precious but inadequate compensation; and so I must give up, if not the most dazzling, still the sweetest part of my happiness.” He tried to find pupils to board with him, but only one pupil came, and he was soon sent away for lack of companions. “I would rather spend an evening,” wrote the needy enthusiast, “in solving a difficult question, than in running after some empty-headed and consequential millionaire in search of a pupil.” A little money was earned by an occasional article in Le Producteur, in which he began to expound the philosophic ideas that were now maturing in his mind. He announced a course of lectures (1826), which it was hoped would bring money as well as fame, and which were to be the first dogmatic exposition of the Positive Philosophy. A friend had said to him, “You talk too freely, your ideas are getting abroad, and other people use them without giving you the credit; put your ownership on record.” The lectures attracted hearers so eminent as Humboldt the cosmologist, Poinsot the geometer and Blainville the physiologist.
Unhappily, after the third lecture of the course, Comte had a severe attack of cerebral derangement, brought on by intense and prolonged meditation, acting on a system that was already irritated by the chagrin of domestic discomfort. He did not recover his health for more than a year, and as soon as